“Finally, farewell to Pakistan.” So were the final words of Pervez Musharraf in his address to the Pakistani people as he ultimately chose to resign rather than face impeachment before an unfriendly Pakistani parliament. They may also be America’s final words, with its most trusted Pakistani conduit now gone and the future status of the Pakistani-American relationship up in the air.
There has been much criticism of Musharraf’s actions – and at times inaction – as the leader of an unlikely but crucial American ally since 9/11. The criticism has generally been warranted: he selectively confronted Islamic radicalism in his own country, rounding up hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, but often failing to keep them in custody. In fact, with growing al Qaeda and Taliban control in tribal areas of Pakistan, especially the Northwest Frontier Province, Musharraf has increasingly sought to negotiate with terror, rather than to eliminate it. Now, significant areas of Pakistan have become safe-havens from which terrorists can launch their jihad at either Afghanistan or the regional and federal governments of Pakistan itself.
Yet there is simply no clear alternative to Musharraf – either from a US policy standpoint or from the standpoint of proven, trustworthy stewardship of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Pakistan itself is also likely to suffer growing instability in the coming months. While Pakistanis joyously celebrated Musharraf's departure in the streets, lawyers had already given the Pakistani coalition government a 72 hour ultimatum to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf as he tried in vain to retain power. If their ultimatum is not met, this newly elected government will surely meet with the same mass protests of displeasure. And if that happens, a ‘coalition’ government with deeper differences than unifying positions could fracture even more. Their greatest unifying factor – the removal of Musharraf – is now expended.
So now what? No one, least of all Pakistanis, really knows for certain. For all his faults, Musharraf was neither saint nor sinner as an American ally. Time will likely prove him to have been the best possible option, both then and now. For all his attributes, he could never truly win over the Pakistani people, who live in a constitutional democracy, despite its coups and rampant corruption.
In the coming post-Musharraf era, either former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N), the object of Musharraf’s 1999 bloodless coup, or Asif Zardari (PPP), husband of assassinated Benazir Bhutto, could be the successor to the Pakistani presidency. However, it is unlikely that the Pakistani military will permit a Nawaz Sharif presidency. And the public likely will not stomach an Ali Zardawi presidency, since he is seen as the embodiment of corruption among a population exhausted by generations of corruption.
The current Pakistani government may well be now settling in for its most bitter power struggle yet, with one unifying factor removed in Musharraf and the open seat of an empty presidency before them to open new political bloodsport. If they cannot resolve the struggle ahead, and Pakistan begins to sink under the weight of a ‘coalition’ government incapacitated by infighting, the military may well step in again, nearly ten years after the last time – under Musharraf.
While he does not appear inclined to pursue such a path immediately in order to fulfill any of his own ambitions for power and control, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani may feel compelled to take power. It’s essentially up to the ‘coalition’ government.
And if they exist in extended disarray, it may have us meeting a President Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, an American-trained chain smoker who rose to Chief of Army Staff (COAS) in steep trajectory under Musharraf. Perhaps you should get to know him; he may come to hold the keys to power in the Muslim world’s only nuclear state.