Pakistan without Musharraf?

David Whitehouse explains the dynamics at work in Pakistan after parliamentary elections that rejected the man the U.S. once viewed as its key ally in the "war on terror."

LEADERS OF Pakistan's two strongest political parties agreed last week to form a ruling coalition--and take steps to marginalize the former dictator, Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf, a key ally of the U.S. "war on terror" since 2001, is still president, but Pakistanis soundly rejected him in parliamentary elections on February 18, when his party ran a distant third. As the days approach for an anticipated Taliban "spring offensive" in Afghanistan, Pakistan's policy in the anti-Taliban war--and the influence of the U.S. over that policy--are both unclear.

In last week's agreement, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, deposed by Musharraf nine years ago, agreed to help form a cabinet with the top vote-getter, the People's Party of Pakistan (PPP). Until then, PPP Chairman Asif Ali Zardari--the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated December 27--had not agreed to Sharif's demand to immediately curtail Musharraf's powers as president or reinstate the 60 judges dismissed by Musharraf last year.

Many of the judges, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhry, are still under house arrest. Musharraf fired the judges and declared emergency rule in November--when it seemed that the Supreme Court might invalidate Musharraf's October election as president because he then still held the post of army chief.

Zardari wasn't eager to reinstate judges, who might overturn an amnesty on corruption charges that Musharraf granted last fall to Bhutto, back when the two were pursuing a power-sharing arrangement.

Zardari himself spent three years in prison for corruption in the 1990s, and he and Bhutto were convicted in 2003 in a Swiss court for laundering $15 million in kickbacks from Swiss firms while Bhutto was prime minister. Fresh charges in Pakistan still hung over Zardari until early this month, when an anti-corruption court dismissed them--thus removing a major source of his hesitation over restoring the judges fired by Musharraf.

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THE CONTINUED power of the army is another reason for a civilian party to flinch when it comes pushing Musharraf aside, even though he formally stepped down as army chief in November after a year of plummeting popularity.

In Pakistan--where the military has ruled during most of the country's 61 years--the army is strong, and political parties are weak. The officer corps and the capitalist elite are interwoven to an unusual degree-- Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa estimates that the military has direct or indirect control of 30 percent of heavy industry.

No political party represents a comparable portion of the country's most powerful class. Thus, while the election demonstrated that the PPP is the only party with a national base, it was unable to win a majority anywhere. In addition to leading the national government, the PPP will be part of all four provincial governments--although Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) will be the leading partner in the Punjab.

It could take weeks or even months to patch together working coalitions in the regions and at the national level. Now that the PPP and PML(N) look like they are consolidating a new power center--and new channels for the gravy train--many of the smaller forces and "notables" who run their petty fiefdoms through the patronage of the state are likely to climb on board. Leaders of small parties from all over the country have been visiting Zardari daily to see what deals they can strike.

Because of the PML(N)'s strength in the Punjab, Zardari may choose a Punjabi as prime minister. Given his record of corruption, many of Zardari's own party members don't trust him to run the country himself.

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported that Zardari had told politicians from his home province of Sindh that a Punjabi prime minister would serve only three months--while Zardari seeks a parliamentary seat to make himself eligible for the top post.

The future posture of the military is uncertain. Under the new leadership of former spy chief Ashfaq Kayani, the army has already played an unusual role in the election--by not interfering.

Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid told Harpers magazine that Musharraf's party did all it could to rig the election in the weeks leading up to the vote, through bribes, intimidation and tampering with voter rolls. But past elections have often turned on army manipulation on election day. This time, Kayani told his troops just to maintain order.

The withdrawal of the army from politics isn't a sure bet, however. The top officers don't favor reinstatement of the fired judges, who had challenged the "privatization" schemes that put state enterprises into the hands of retired officers and civilian allies of the army.

The generals also feel threatened by the political movement, led by lawyers, that has taken to the streets by the thousands in the past year to defend the independence of the judiciary. The movement's main spokesperson, Aitzaz Ahsan, now calls for the prosecution of Musharraf and others for crimes committed during the dictatorship--not a precedent the other generals would like to see.

In the near future, however, the main factor guiding the army's approach to politics may be a diminished incentive to defend Musharraf's political power.

Until recently, the army stood by Musharraf despite the plunge in his popularity--in part, because he had the backing of George W. Bush. U.S. military aid has averaged $1 billion a year since 2001, when Musharraf pledged loyalty to the "war on terror."

But Pakistanis' rejection of Musharraf moved even the White House to back off from full backing. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told Congress after the election that Pakistan, not Musharraf, was "indispensible" to the U.S. war. This statement, and similar ones from Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, may reassure the generals of continued U.S. support and aid if they let the parliament or judiciary take Musharraf out of politics.

As if to reassure the army of continued support--with or without Musharraf--Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has visited Pakistan twice since the election. On his March 3 visit, Mullen said, "The military-to-military relation is really critical," according to the New York Times.

The White House also leaked plans in the first weeks of March to provide up to $100 million in aid to Pakistan's Frontier Corps for each of the next four years--and to send up to 100 trainers in the next few months.

The corps was once a major conduit for Pakistani support and training of Islamist fighters in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, but the U.S. wants to convert them into a force to fight the Taliban. Musharraf pursued the plan haltingly, as the corps maintained connections with the Taliban--despite occasional battles--in hopes of influencing the future of Afghan politics, which could include a power-sharing role for the Taliban.

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ASIDE FROM the rejection of Musharraf, the election's most important result was a crushing defeat for his main governing partners--the religious parties that have their strongest base in the two provinces that border Afghanistan.

In Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Awami National Party (ANP) will rule in partnership with its longtime ally, the PPP. Despite the reputation of these parties as "secular leftist," they don't favor a military response to Islamic militants who rose up last year in the province's "tribal areas," including the ski resort area of Swat.

ANP leaders told Pakistan's Daily Times that they would negotiate peace with the local Taliban and its tribal allies. To sweeten the deal, the ANP--which has close relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai--promised to pass a measure to enforce shariah, or Islamic law, in the province's tribal areas. In recent months, militants there have attacked men for not having beards and women for not wearing burqas.

The plans to make peace with militants are directly at odds with the war plans the U.S. has for the Frontier Corps in the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Under the constitution, the president--Musharraf, for now--appoints the governor of FATA and determines policy there. The struggle over Musharraf's future could thus have decisive consequences for Pakistan's role in the "war on terror."

Sharif, a conservative but not a militant Muslim, agrees with the ANP/PPP approach to the border areas. In his home province of Punjab, police in the city of Lahore recently vowed to enforce an interpretation of shariah that bans kite-flying, as the Taliban does.

Politicians like Zardari and Bhutto before him have sought a middle ground where they can continue to cooperate with the U.S.--a position that draws a distinction between "militants" who can be bargained with, and "extremists" of the al-Qaeda type who must be defeated.

The hope of thus dividing the militants faces an obstacle, though--the continued U.S.-NATO occupation of Afghanistan, which unites the opposition.

Pakistan's new regime will face another basic problem besides the difficulties of coalition-building and navigating its relationship with the world's superpower. The reshuffling of Pakistan's corrupt elite will have no effect on the gross inequality of the recent "boom" years, which left one third of Pakistanis in poverty--or on the inflation of fuel and food prices that, since last year, has grown faster than the economy itself.

These are the problems that first eroded Musharraf's popularity, and the new rulers show no signs that they have a solution.