Pakistan’s President-General, Pervez Musharraf, is facing his worst crisis since he took power in a coup in October 1999. The last three weeks of March have seen violent protests in Islamabad, Lahore and other cities led by black-suited lawyers but followed, increasingly, by once-docile political parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. All scent that more than seven years of military rule may be coming to a close.
The crisis began on March 9, when Musharraf suspended Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, allegedly for abuse of office. Most of Pakistan’s legal fraternity–and many, many others–saw this as a ruse to remove an unusually truculent judge. Musharraf wants to be re-elected for another five-year presidential term by an existing Parliament rigged in his favor. He also wants to remain army chief. In February Chaudhry told military cadets that in his opinion, Musharraf could not remain as both president and army chief beyond the expiry of his current presidential term in October. “That’s why he was sacked,” says a government insider.
Unaccountable military rule is one constant of Pakistani politics. American power is another. Two weeks before the lawyers took to the barricades, US Vice President Dick Cheney flew into Islamabad in a Black Hawk helicopter. He was in town to deliver a “tough message” to the Pakistani leader. Since September Washington has become exercised by peace agreements Musharraf signed with pro-Taliban tribesmen in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan.
These pacts have not only failed to reduce the flow of Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas into Afghanistan; they have created ungoverned spaces in which Taliban and foreign fighters have regrouped for a spring offensive against NATO in Afghanistan and, in the case of Al Qaeda, perhaps “faraway enemies” like Europe and America. Bloodied by Iraq, the Bush Administration has realized that Afghanistan could tip the same way. Cheney was the latest American heavy hitter dispatched to make sure Musharraf stays onside.
Cheney warned him that a Democratic-run Congress might cut aid to the Pakistani army unless it took action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The strategy of striking deals with tribesmen had failed, Cheney said, and Pakistan would have to become more aggressive in pursuit of Al Qaeda. “The Yanks want a civil war,” snapped a Pakistani minister. Musharraf said nothing, though a spokesperson hissed, “Pakistan does not accept dictation from any side or any source.”
It does, of course, and it will. The day of Cheney’s visit a top Taliban leader, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, was picked up by Pakistani forces in Quetta on the basis of intelligence sent by US forces in Kandahar. And the last few weeks have seen fierce battles between tribesmen and foreign fighters in the South Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. The government claims the fighting is a victory for its policy of “turning” locals against foreigners in the tribal areas. Local sources say the skirmishes are a more mundane turf war between tribesmen and Uzbek militants allied to Al Qaeda, with the Taliban trying to mediate a truce. All three forces are active in the insurgency in Afghanistan.