Since September 11, 2001, the U.S.’s Pakistan policy can be summed up in two words: Pervez Musharraf. But within the U.S. intelligence community, and in Pakistan, there’s a growing belief that the U.S.-friendly military dictator’s days are drawing to a close — and possibly within the next few months. It may be time for the U.S. to face what it’s long feared in the nuclear state: the prospect of chaos, rising Islamism or anti-Americanism that follows Musharraf.
But the hope — among Pakistani military officers and politicians, to say nothing of U.S. diplomats — is that the increasingly inept and unpopular Musharraf can be eased out of power while the U.S. slowly distances itself from him, allowing for as smooth a transition as is possible in the turbulent South Asian country. Some see the Pakistani Army remaining powerful enough to prevent a chaotic transition or an Islamist takeover. “This is going to be a Pinochet-like transition, instead of a Marcos-like one,” one former Pakistani official tells TPMmuckraker. In other words, according to the ex-official, the U.S. may not stand foursquare behind its ally Musharraf until he’s ultimately forced from power, as President Ronald Reagan chose with doomed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Over the past few weeks, U.S. intelligence have started to conclude that Musharraf is on his way out. “It is the sense people have, and it’s been out there,” says Rob Richer, a former deputy head of CIA operations who has met with Musharraf personally and long worked with the Pakistanis on intelligence issues. “This is the view of both senior (U.S. intelligence) officials and people who follow the issue closely.” What’s more, Richer tells TPMmuckraker, Musharraf himself knows his time is up, and is “looking for an exit strategy”:
“He believes his successor has got to be someone who supports the military but it won’t necessarily be someone in uniform. There’s no obvious candidate â¦ At this point, he’s looking for the right person, a right-winger, someone who understands the Army.”
Musharraf’s vision is to make Pakistan like Turkey, where Islamic currents ebb and flow with popular sentiment, “but who enforces what they call democracy? The military.” Adds Frederic Grare, a former French diplomat in Pakistan, the military could “withdraw behind the scenes but keep the levers of power,” while a civilian takes charge after elections that Musharraf has called for in the fall.Musharraf, whose alliance with the U.S. on counterterrorism has been the subject of fierce controversy within Pakistan, has made error after error since March, when he ousted a leading critic, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a move of dubious legality. Chaudhry’s Supreme Court was set to hear a case on the constitutionality of Musharraf retaining the post of Army Chief of Staff while holding the presidency, and Musharraf cited unspecified allegations of corruption in removing him. Since then, Pakistan has been rocked by popular protest, uniting many of Musharraf’s enemies. On May 12, over 40 people were killed when members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which supports Musharraf, attacked a pro-Chaudhry demonstration in Karachi, an incident that has become a national scandal.
Making matters worse, just days later, Musharraf was confronted with another crisis: the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, located in the heart of the capitol city of Islamabad, denounced Pakistan’s female tourism minister and then captured the policemen who came to arrest the mosque’s leaders. On May 22, Musharraf defused the crisis without invading the mosque — defying the wishes of many in his security apparatus — but the militants were allowed to keep their weapons. The incident was a reminder that Pakistani jihadists have gained strength since September 2006, when Musharraf agreed to a truce with Islamist militants in the lawless Waziristan province, where Osama bin Laden and his coterie are believed to be hiding.
Within three months, Musharraf has grown steadily weaker in the eyes of the security services, the Islamists, and the general public, compounding the doubts that some in the U.S. have over his commitment to taking on al-Qaeda. The mistakes expose a regime “imploding” under the weight of its contradictions, according to Grere, and unable to mollify the multifaceted discontent that has taken root since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup.
Neither Richer nor Grare believes that there’s an obvious candidate to succeed Musharraf, the ex-Pakistani official cited two prominent generals who could emerge as successors if the Army opts to retain formal rule, or alternatively, serve as crucial behind-the-scenes power brokers. The two are Ehsan Saleem Hayat, the army’s vice chief of staff, and Ehsan ul-Haq, the chairman of the joint chiefs and a former head of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence apparatus, known as the ISI. According to the ex-Pakistani official, both men were recently in Washington, sounding out senior officials: “They didn’t come to Washington for a Burger King meal.” A State Department official confirms that ul-Haq met in May with Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, but could not say the same for Hayat.
The former Pakistani official says that the message that the possible successors are trying to send to the U.S. is that “continuity in policy can be ensured without the continuity of an individual, while at the same time, a democratic process can proceed.” In other words, the U.S. can wean itself off of Musharraf without fear that the U.S.-Pakistani alliance is at risk, and will likely have some kind of election to point to that blesses the result. Not many see the Islamists as able to take control. “One common factor in places where Islamists rise to power is the economy tanking,” observes Richer. “But in Pakistan investment is taking off. It doesn’t have many of the factors that drive religious elements taking power.”
This week, Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, will visit Pakistan as part of region-wide trip. A State Department official denies that Boucher would send any particular message to Musharraf, and says he’s there to “follow up on (previous) discussions,” especially about counterterrorism cooperation.