April 2, 2007Foreign Affairs

The cat behind the jihadi paw

A faction within Pakistan’s military establishment is at work

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

These days, the international media is full of headlines declaring that Pakistan’s dictatorship is shaky, Gen Musharraf is embattled and his grip is faltering. One Pakistani commentator warned of a creeping coup, while the redoubtable B Raman wrote about the looming jihadi anarchy in Pakistan.

Bill Roggio has by far the best summary of recent events that have led to the dire warnings of impending chaos in Pakistan. Despite the death toll, the intramural war between pro-al Qaeda Uzbeks and the equally pro-al Qaeda Pakistani Taliban is a distraction. It is giving Musharraf’s people some additional talking points to respond to criticism that they have effectively ceded control of parts of the tribal areas to the Taliban. But it is not, as the Pakistani government would have you believe, beating back the Taliban forces from gaining ground in Pakistan.

But here’s what is happening: the Taliban are doing to parts of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province what they did to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. They have de facto control and they are forcing barbers into reconsidering their choice of career. And a bunch of madrassa students’—the taliban, in other words—are thumbing their noses at the Musharraf government right in the middle of Islamabad. They too are forcing music stores and brothel managers to reconsider their career choice (or at least business location). So are the Islamists taking over, as was long feared?

Consider this: the Islamists of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) political alliance are not serious players in this picture. Nor have the men in black’—lawyers protesting Musharraf’s hamhanded treatment of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry—allowed them to hijack their movement. Far from leading the Islamist charge, the MMA is caught up in finding reasons not to resign from the legislatures as they had threatened. Musharraf used to hold them up as a paper tiger to scare the West into believing that an Islamist takeover is never too far away. The MMAs leaders were willing accomplices in this act.

What then explains the new shakiness in the dictatorship? It is highly likely that seven long years of Musharraf has created a strong enough constituency within Pakistan’s military establishment that is opposed to his continuing in office any longer. The resurgent Taliban in the frontier areas and the rampaging taliban in Islamabad are not your average religious fundamentalists (like those that took to the streets to protest against those Danish cartoons). They are both backed by former officials of the ISI who remain the real, albeit, shadowy powerbrokers in Pakistan: Lt Gen (retd) Hamid Gul and Sqn Ldr (retd) Khalid Khawaja are their respective backers. While Raman believes that Gul & Co may be unable to contain the monster they created, there should be little doubt that the current manoeuvres are aimed at unseating Musharraf.

And after the Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry imbroglio, he has few supporters left in Pakistan. The United States is are shifting gears with the White House maintaining its public support while Congress and many others calling for him to be held to account. Benazir Bhutto is being dusted off the shelves and is likely to be part of America’s emerging policy towards Pakistan.

Therefore, ironically, Gen Musharraf has a chance to do with the manner of his exit what he promised to do all the time he was in power: help Pakistan move towards democracy. The faster he comes to a political arrangement with Benazir Bhutto the greater the chance that he will be able to prevent a Gul & Co-backed regime from taking over. The choice facing the Pakistani people is between a America-backed Benazir and a Gul & Co backed puppet. Musharraf can give them that choice by standing down on the Chief Justice and on his own ambitions to stay in power for another five years. Here’s the thing—he won’t. Wear your seatbelts.

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