Pakistan's final arbiter: the Army

The military is Musharraf's chief remaining constituency.

The last time President Pervez Musharraf suspended the Constitution, sacked Supreme Court judges, and cracked down on political parties – in 1999 – he found support in all the right quarters: his Army's top brass, key Western capitals, the business elite, and the educated middle classes.

Much of that domestic support has eroded as the war on terror pushed him closer to Washington. But General Musharraf continued to dominate the country's political scene with the backing of Pakistan's Army – what some see as his only real constituency.

As Pakistan's strongest and most stable institution, the Army has always played an important, often stabilizing, political role behind the scenes or in full view. But growing street unrest in Pakistan and dismay in Washington may spur a nervous military top brass to again step up as the ultimate arbiter of Pakistani political power. While analysts say the Army remains entirely behind Musharraf, one thing is certain: Pakistan's military establishment will not allow its prestige and position to be compromised.

"The Army is always reluctant to move against their chief," says Ikram Sehgal, the editor of Defence Journal and a retired major in Pakistan's Army. But pushing Musharraf to become a civilian leader, he says, "might be the only way for the Army to redeem its image."

In the lead up to this week's political crisis, President Musharraf has acted with the confidence of a military man who commands absolute loyalty. While that is unlikely to change, Pakistan's military is an institution that has historically shown a strong sense of identity and mission that may owe more to the nation of Pakistan than to the office of the president.

"The Army would have to be part of any political change," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, former Professor of Pakistan Studies at Columbia University and author of Military, State and Society in Pakistan. "It could be a mediator between parties as it has been in the past," he says. "Directly or indirectly, the Army will have to help work out a solution."

Army's history of political savvy

President Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency this week bore a strong resemblance to the coup he launched against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Once again, Musharraf suspended the constitution and ordered a crackdown on the judiciary and political opposition.

But this time, the reception was nothing like the general might have expected. Not only have his most important supporters in the White House pulled back, but a growing street movement threatens to spiral out of control, which, analysts say, is making everyone in the country, especially the Pakistani Army, very nervous.

The tension has also increased pressure on the Army to stabilize the country as it has in the past. Musharraf's desperate political maneuvers, some say, might also cause the general's Army to view him as more of a liability on the institution, and though unlikely, some senior officers might suggest to the chief of the Army staff to leave the barracks and rule as a civilian president.

"[Musharraf] gave his solemn oath to the Supreme Court that he will take his uniform off – this is something he also told his corps commanders," says Mr. Seghal. "Now, with the [state of emergency] it's all unclear. They want him to stay yet they want him to go through on his word as well."

A clear break in the ranks of the Army has never been witnessed; the military has never staged a coup against one of its own. But previously, subtle pressure from the high-ranking Army generals has influenced military dictators to step down.

"General Ayub Khan," Pakistan's first military ruler, "had to resign in similar circumstances when there was a popular street movement," observes Kamal Matinuddin, an independent analyst and retired lieutenant general in the Army.

Musharraf has surrounded himself with loyalists in the Army and intelligence forces – sometimes superseding more senior officers with his favorites – a practice that has even resulted in a few resignations. While such blatant favoritism has been successful for previous military leaders, a history of Pakistani military rules shows that the formula comes with a shelf life. Eventually, faced with unrest and crises of legitimacy, military rulers have had to step down.

A familiar pattern of military rule

The eight years of Musharraf's rule have followed a pattern that can be seen in all previous military regimes. Foreign aid has come pouring in and catalyzed economic growth rates to compete with the world's fastest industrializing nations. Musharraf has matched the GDP growth rates of up to 9 percent seen during previous military rules in the 1960s and 80s.

More important, the Pakistani Army, in all three of its previous military rules, has been able to beef up its arsenal and become stronger as an institution, often thanks to a large volume of military aid from the United States. During General Zia-ul Haq's rule, Pakistan was the leading recipient of military aid after Israel and Egypt. During Musharraf's rule, the Pakistani Army has improved its conventional military equipment with the $7 billion in military aid the regime has received from the US since 2001. Pakistan is America's third largest client for military equipment today.

Now, the clear messages from America after the emergency can't be very encouraging for the Army as an institution. President Bush conveyed his thoughts to Musharraf over the phone last night: "Take your uniform off." The Pentagon also suspended military talks with the country immediately after the announcement.

"Suspension of these talks isn't in the interest of either side," observes Sehgal.

Still, another scenario remains. Were President Musharraf to quit as Army chief and remain president, his designated successor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, would take over the military. Such a resolution, analysts say, would probably satisfy Washington, as well as the military.

But many analysts doubt that Musharraf would ever accept such a climb down, fearing an agitated opposition.

"The irony is that the more the situation gets worse, the more he seems to want to hold on to power," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and analyst. "My worry is that if he doesn't come around soon, it might be too late for an amicable solution."

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