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Pervez Musharraf, the Once and Future President of Pakistan?

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By William Tucker

It has been quite some time since I have addressed Pakistani politics, but with the current intrigue following “Memogate” it might be time to access the situation. In 2007, I called into question the wisdom behind the U.S., and other Western powers, pushing for then President Musharraf to remove his military uniform and rule as a civilian. Shortly thereafter, Benazir Bhutto, and several other Pakistani politicians in exile, returned to the country in hopes restoring democratic rule. As I had successfully predicted, Bhutto was assassinated before 2007 ended. Musharraf was blamed for the assassination, although evidence suggested that the Taliban was behind the killing, and the pressure that ensued eventually forced the President to leave office 2008. The chaotic political environment that followed brought Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, into the presidency. Since that time the political environment in Pakistan has markedly deteriorated.

This brings us back to the aforementioned Memogate scandal. Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, allegedly sought the help of Mansoor Ijaz, a well known Pakistani-American businessman, to deliver a memo to the U.S. asking for help in asserting civilian control over the Pakistani military. According to statements leaked online, the memo was drafted at the behest of Zardari. These same leaks indicate that Haqqani planned to use Ijaz to deliver the memo to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen. In Pakistan, the military has long been king, thus prompting the civilian government to preempt any possible coup attempt. Whenever the military deemed civilian rule to be ineffective, the military would seize power. Indeed, most of Pakistan’s modern history has been under military rule. Understanding the role of the military in governing the state adds a sense of legitimacy to the memogate claims, but that does not necessarily make all the claims in the scandal accurate.

In the months since the memogate scandal broke, there have been rumors of the military planning yet another coup. Some Pakistani observers, the author included, have expressed skepticism at these claims. Not so much because the military’s capability to execute a coup is lacking, rather there are relatively few military officers who want to run the civilian affairs of the state. Furthermore, the military does not want to be in the position of taking the blame for all of Pakistan’s ills. This doesn’t mean the military is unconcerned with the affairs of the state, but they would prefer a middle ground for reestablishing control of the situation. What is far more certain is that the military does not have any faith in the current civilian government, or any potential civilian successor, to rectify the current situation.

If the military had a personality in mind to represent their interests and govern under the guise of a civilian they could turn to former President Musharraf. In fact, Musharraf created his own political party in 2010 and has plotted his return to Pakistan this year to compete in the 2013 elections. Musharraf’s proclamations over his return have gained steam as the memogate scandal dominated headlines. It would seem that the scandal and Musharraf’s return are more than mere coincidence, but direct evidence of a link is lacking. To be sure, both the military and Musharraf do stand to gain from memogate. Further evidence of a renewed link between the Pakistani military and Musharraf surfaced earlier this week when several high ranking officers publicly stated that Musharraf should be allowed to return to Pakistan without threat of prosecution. Again, we don’t have any evidence that Musharraf’s return and the memogate scandal are part of a plot to seize power, but the possibility is certainly interesting.

As can be expected, the civilians in government have pushed back. As Musharraf sets dates, the louder the threats become that the former president would be prosecuted for several crimes for which he stands accused. Keep in mind that Musharraf could hardly be described as stupid and it is highly unlikely that he would attempt to return without some sort of support base. The recent military endorsement would seem to rectify this anomaly. Musharraf intended to return to Pakistan this week, but the ISI chief personally advised against it. It would seem that the ISI, which operates under the Pakistani military, does not believe that the time for his return is quite right. If that is the case, Musharraf will be pressed for time as he needs to return to Pakistan shortly if he is to be considered a serious contender for the upcoming elections. The political intrigue in Islamabad should be watched closely over the next six months for signs that the military may be trying to bolster Musharraf’s presidential run. That will perhaps be the best indicator that the military intends to fully return to dominating Pakistan’s political landscape, albeit from behind Musharraf’s throne.

Photo: Pervez Musharraf at World Economic Forum, Davos 2008. Photo copyright of World Economic Forum.

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