Guardian : His bridges burned, Musharraf has nowhere to turn

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

His bridges burned, Musharraf has nowhere to turn

Pakistan's Musharraf era could be in its death throes with the general facing a united domestic opposition and increasing scepticism from the US

Mark Tran | Guardian Unlimited | November 13, 2007

With pressure mounting on him at home and from abroad, the chances that General Pervez Musharraf will survive politically are looking increasingly bleak.

The prospects of a power-sharing deal with the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto that would have enabled Musharraf to cling on to power as president are diminishing rapidly. The more pressure Musharraf is applying on Bhutto, the more she is pushing back.

Today, as she was put under house arrest for the second time in five days, the opposition leader moved closer to a clean break with Musharraf.

For the first time, Bhutto called on him to resign as president altogether, adding for good measure that she could never serve in a government under him. Anyone associated with the general, she said, "gets contaminated".

For a government rather sensitive to criticism, as the Daily Telegraph found to its cost, such words will hardly be appreciated. More ominously for Musharraf, Bhutto now says she will work with the rest of the opposition, including the exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to restore democracy.

Should Bhutto decide to throw her lot in with the opposition, Musharraf will be in real trouble. Until now he could count on a divided opposition of those who were willing to accept him as president, and those who wanted him to quit the scene altogether.

Many in the opposition were critical of Bhutto's willingness to strike a Faustian pact with Musharraf whereby he would give up his post as head of the army to remain president and she would breeze into the job of prime minister. Even members of Bhutto's Pakistan's People's party (PPP) disapproved of her negotiations with Musharraf.

Musharraf's decision to declare emergency rule looks like an increasingly costly miscalculation. Few accept the rationale that it was aimed at extremists, and most believe that the real target was a supreme court increasingly willing to stand up to the government. Moreover, the result has been to unite the opposition against the president.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth has given Musharraf an ultimatum to restore the constitution or face expulsion from the organisation. This threat from a largely powerless organisation is hardly likely to make Musharraf quake in his boots, but the move serves to underline his isolation.

The two constituencies that really count for Musharraf are the army and the US. He may brush aside huffing and puffing from the Commonwealth and Westminster, not so statements from Washington.

The Bush administration has been hedging its bets. While calling for a restoration of democracy, the White House has praised Musharraf as a valuable ally against Islamist militancy in his own country and across the border in Afghanistan.

Of course there have been complaints. The US criticised Musharraf's decision to call a truce with militants in the border region, which allowed them to regroup, and there has been griping that Pakistan was not doing enough to block Taliban forces from infiltrating Afghanistan from Pakistani territory.

Despite such caveats, the US regards Musharraf, who decided after 9/11 that Pakistan must side with the Bush administration, as the better devil. But as his stock plummets, the US will at some point see him as a liability rather than an asset.

There are already whispers in the US that it would be better off with General Ashfaq Kiani, who was picked last month by Musharraf as deputy chief of staff of the army. Kiani is widely viewed as Musharraf's likely successor as head of the armed forces.

In an interesting twist, the Los Angeles Times reported last month that Kiani had been a key intermediary in talks with Bhutto as the former opposition leader and Musharraf tried to work out their power-sharing deal. Previously in charge of investigating assassination attempts against the president, Kiani is considered a moderate and is well-regarded by US officials.

Kiani is said to favour a more "professional" armed forces that remain in barracks and keeps out of politics - although this would go against Pakistan's history of military meddling in politics. Even if Kiani is flavour of the month in Washington, the difficulty for the US and Pakistan will be to manage the transition to a post-Musharraf era.