Whither Unified Command?

Indian Express , July 24, 2007

For more than five decades Pakistan’s military rulers have depended on the country’s judiciary to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy for their arbitrary decisions. Last week’s judgment by the Supreme Court to restore Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as chief justice, and General Musharraf’s decision to remove him from office as unlawful, brings to an end that arrangement between the courts and the military.

The Supreme Court ruling weakens an embattled Musharraf further and demonstrates the unwillingness of Pakistan’s civilians to endlessly obey the military’s commands.

Musharraf now has two options. He could recognise the emerging reality and initiate a process of national reconciliation that allows civilian institutions to function independently within their respective spheres. Or he could persist with the doctrine of the military’s supremacy that has polarised Pakistan along several lines. Musharraf recently told newspaper editors that he believed in “unified command”, which indicates that he has yet to understand how he and his military predecessors have obstructed the emergence of a consensus system of governance that absorbs differences within society without widespread resort to violence and tearing the country apart.

Musharraf sees no contradiction in his assertion that Pakistan is in a state of war with Islamist extremists and his desire to have his way on all issues big or small. Nor has he done anything to overcome any of Pakistan’s divisions to focus exclusively on fighting terrorists and militants.

For Musharraf, Pakistan’s politicians and their alleged petty corruptions — or a dozen other things he dislikes about Pakistani civilians — are as much the enemy as terrorism. He has not hesitated to use force against ethnic political groups refusing to toe the line, while allowing his allies a free hand in unleashing violence against his opponents. Pakistan is polarised between rich and poor, Islamist and secularist, pro-military and pro-civilian rule. Ethnic divisions not only persist, they seem to have aggravated over the last eight years.

Democracies subsume disagreements and diversity by allowing the majority to have its way until the next election while protecting the rights of the minority under law. Authoritarianism, or “unified command” as Musharraf describes it, simply hardens the divisions in society. In Pakistan’s case, the military-intelligence complex that runs the country has periodically played up various schisms to justify strong-arm, centralised rule.

The Supreme Court’s rebuke to Musharraf could be seen by him as a blessing in disguise because it ends a distracting crisis of his own making, giving him the opportunity to concentrate on dealing with jihadist extremism. But that is not Musharraf’s personality.

He suffers from a messiah complex, believes the army alone has the right to run Pakistan and is very self righteous. Musharraf will read this judgment as a snub and will most likely get into further confrontations with the judiciary as well as other elements of Pakistan’s civilian society.

Musharraf has received accolades from the US for finally beginning to show resolve against Pakistan’s homegrown extremists. He painted the recent Lal Masjid incident in Islamabad as the beginning of a wider war against extremism. But Musharraf has declared war on militant extremists several times since September 11, 2001, only to compromise or negotiate with them.

Under Musharraf, Pakistan’s Islamist militancy has grown, not diminished, as have the country’s other problems. Recent US intelligence assessments that the Al-Qaeda has reorganised itself primarily from Pakistan also confirm that Musharraf has failed to accomplish what the Bush administration publicly praises him for. But it seems he only wants to stay in power and to that end he has made governing Pakistan a massive juggling act.

Musharraf tries to fit in several contradictory policies in his agenda, and is often willing to incur great cost to simply maintain the status quo. And for the moment the Supreme Court may have won the recent turf war with General Musharraf but Pakistan’s many battles within are far from over.