West eyes Musharraf's promise to leave Army

President Pervez Musharraf has promised to step down from his military role by the end of this year.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf has two titles - president and general - with two wardrobes to match. He dons a camouflage commando jacket when taking a hard line against Muslim militants, and a traditional salwar chemise when extending an olive branch to India, or otherwise projecting reform.

Now Mr. Musharraf has committed to folding away his fatigues by year's end.

Smart stage management and impeccable use of his two costumes has won the general-turned-president plaudits from the West. Earlier this year, the US declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally. And just last month, the Commonwealth, a 53-member association of mostly former British colonies, restored Pakistan's membership after its suspension in 1999 when Musharraf took power in a bloodless military coup.

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The Commonwealth's decision served as an endorsement for Musharraf's attempts to bring "sustainable democracy" to the grass roots. But opponents say such votes of confidence help him to get away with controversial decisions in domestic affairs.

"The West wants to reward the general for the role he is playing ... in combating terrorism ... by overlooking the mass violation of democratic norms and values in the country," says Farhatullah Babar, spokesman of the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP). "He is the president, he is the military chief, and he is also the head of the National Security Council. It is simply a dictatorship."

After seizing power, Musharraf promised to hold elections within three years. He delivered in October 2002, but only after announcing controversial amendments that gave him power to suspend parliament and dismiss the prime minister. The main opposition leaders and twice-elected prime ministers - Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto - were barred from contesting elections and are now both in exile. In April 2002, the general was elected to a five-year term in a vote described as "rigged" by opposition.

In order to get the constitutional amendments passed by Parliament, Musharraf promised the alliance of religious extremist parties, called the Muttahida Majilis-e-Amal (MMA), that he would step down from his military role by the end of this year. The secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, plans to hold Musharraf to that promise as a condition for Paksitan's reentry. While welcoming the steps being taken, the Commonwealth expressed "continuing concerns in regard to the strengthening of the democratic process."

However, Musharraf supporters tout district-level elections in 2001, where people voted directly for local leaders. These elected mayors and councilors were given wide judicial and administrative powers to cut through bureaucracy and diminish the influence of feudal and tribal elites.

Still, Pakistan spends much of its resources on the 700,000 troops in its armed forces, which makes it a dominant institution. "The biggest hurdle in democracy is the role of Army," says Amir Ahmed Khan, editor of country's leading monthly magazine, The Herald.

Considering the power of the military, there is much debate over whether Musharraf will really forsake the institution that made him. The Herald carried a cover story "Will he or won't he?" after ruling-party legislators requested that Musharraf reconsider staying on as both army chief and president.

Many analysts see a newly created National Security Council as an attempt by Musharraf to keep his military powers without wearing a uniform. The president heads the 13-member council, which includes top military and civilian leaders. Backers of the new body say that it will help prevent military coups in the future, while opposition lawmakers condemn the idea as "permanent martial law."

For many Pakistanis, the political controversy is overshadowed by Musharraf's reform agenda. He is credited with freeing media from state control and allowing private TV channels and discussions of social issues that were previously taboo. He has also taken a progressive stand on human rights issues such as honor killings, and made the environment more receptive to change.

"Musharraf's survival is more important than the revival of democracy," says Yasser Brohi, a young man involved in event management. "We don't want bearded mullahs.

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