That Magical Force

Indian Express , June 20, 2007

The Pakistani people continue to vote with their feet against General Musharraf’s military regime. The crowds turning up to hear ousted Chief Justice Chaudhry are getting larger even as the summer heat is becoming more oppressive.

The popular sentiment favours restoration of the Pakistani constitution and establishment of rule of law under civilian leadership. Justice Chaudhry has become a hero simply for defying a uniformed head of state, who is viewed as having overstayed his welcome as interim ruler after eight years in power.

The campaign, waged by activists of existing political parties, reflects the ground reality of Pakistani politics. The political forces Musharraf claims are discredited remain alive and well, and are stronger than they were in 1999 when Musharraf seized power in a military coup.

Pakistani public opinion appears to have matured. Whereas in 1999 there were expressions of relief at the toppling of a civilian government that seemed to be committing excesses, there is widespread recognition now that military intervention is not the solution to Pakistan’s political problems.
Only continued constitutional rule and an uninterrupted political process will bring stability to Pakistan.

For his part Musharraf is relying on support from the army and the United States to ride through the current crisis. The army needs the US and the US needs the army, the argument goes, and both need Musharraf.

The dilemma for US policy was summed up by Daniel Markey, in an article in Foreign Affairs. “Washington should not rely on Musharraf alone, but it cannot assume that his departure would advance America’s main goals of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy,” he wrote. “In order to achieve long-term success, Washington needs to build trust with the Pakistan army as it works to expand the capacity of civilian institutions.”

There is no question of the army’s pre-eminence in Pakistan and most thoughtful people would not recommend ignoring the army as an institution. But as the peaceful protests increase in frequency and size, the Pakistan army also cannot ignore the sentiment of the Pakistani people and neither can US policy makers seeking “to build trust with the Pakistan army.”

For five decades, Pakistan’s army has played a role in Pakistan’s politics with the acquiescence of the people. But now there is widespread questioning of the army’s objectives and contribution — a situation military officers are most likely viewing with justified concern. If resentment against one of its generals spills over into resentment for the institution as a whole, far greater harm could come to the army’s ability to defend Pakistan than even the most ardent Musharraf backer says is likely in case of Musharraf’s removal from power.

An orderly withdrawal from politics might actually be more in the army’s institutional interest right now than is conceded by those who see the Pakistan army being indefinitely tied to Musharraf’s absolute power.

Major General Sher Ali Khan advised Pakistan’s second military ruler, General Yahya Khan that that the reason the military was able to snatch the initiative from politicians after the fall of Field Marshal Ayub Khan was not because of its fire power but because of its charisma.

Sher Ali wrote words to the effect that “If we had to shoot our way through Nawabpur Road (the main road in Dhaka) we would have had a conflagration on our hands that no amount of fire power in our control could have handled.”

According to General Sher Ali, the Pakistan army’s charisma was “the precious political resource that once lost would not be easily retrieved. It existed because the mass of the people had not actually encountered the army directly. For them it was a mythical entity, a magical force, that would succor them in times of need when all else failed. In the minds of the people, unlike the bureaucracy and the politicians with whom they had daily contact and whom they knew to be corrupt and oppressive, the army was the final guarantor of Pakistan and its well-being.”

What the army, as an institution, will most likely take into account in the next few months is whether it can retain its charisma without disengaging from politics and without persuading its chief to pursue politics separately from the normal functions of the army.

Few people believe that a free and fair election can be held in Pakistan as long as Musharraf rules in uniform. In a sign of how an election under Musharraf would not solve any problem, the number of registered voters seems to have declined by 20 million since the last election — foreshadowing the crisis that will come once the chief justice issue is resolved.