Strategic Folly: Emergency Rule and the Future of Pakistan

General Musharraf

General Musharraf’s decision on November 3, 2007, to declare emergency rule was based on short term goals rather than any sense of long term strategic thinking. His lack of foresight is a very real threat against his tenure in power.

  • The emergency rule was imposed not because of the threat from Islamist and extremist violence, but rather because of the threat the judiciary poses to Musharraf’s rule.
  • Though the act was a short-term and self-serving attempt to remain in power, in the long term the proclamation risks the possibility of an alliance with Bhutto that could have provided a level of legitimacy to his continuing role as President.
  • The decision furthermore threatens Musharraf’s already weakened domestic support base. The decision has pitted him against an opposition already emboldened by a summer showdown between the President and the Chief Justice.
  • It is almost certain that foreign support for Musharraf will continue due to concerns about the global War on Terror. However, domestic events in the United States, particularly gathering election momentum, bode ill for Musharraf’s relationship with its key ally.
  • Though a substantial cut in US aid to Pakistan is unlikely, any reduction of military aid could prompt already restive factions within the military to attempt a takeover.

On November 3, Musharraf issued a proclamation of emergency declaring that the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan shall remain in abeyance’. The text, authorized by Musharraf in his capacity as the Chief of Army Staff offered two reasons for the emergency. The first highlighted recent attacks against ‘state infrastructure and on law enforcement agencies’, claiming that ‘there is visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, IED [improvised explosive device] explosions, rocket firing and bomb explosions and the banding together of some militant groups have taken such activities to an unprecedented level of violent intensity posing a grave threat to the life and property of the citizens of Pakistan’.

The second reason concentrated on the judiciary, some of whom have been ‘working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism thereby weakening the government and the nation's resolve diluting the efficacy of its actions to control this menace’.

The first reason stated by Musharraf, now the overarching martial authority in Pakistan, has some merit. Almost every corner of Pakistan is now susceptible to militant attacks. Recent suicide bombings in the major urban centres of Islamabad and Karachi highlight the spread of violence beyond the lawless border regions. The suicide attack on October 30, 2007, on a road leading up to the General’s headquarters in Rawalpindi demonstrated the frailty of Pakistan’s security apparatus and its inability to squash a renewed wave of suicide attacks, particularly in light of the myriad of separatist and nationalist movements to some extent synergising their aims and objectives.

Musharraf makes a less than convincing argument with his claims against the judiciary. According to Musharraf, the actions of the judiciary, including at times trying and releasing those from prison who have been kept behind bars without evidence or charge, have demoralized the police service in the country and thus weakened the state’s national security architecture. He claims that the actions of the judiciary have ‘weakened the writ of government’. Facts suggest, however, that the judiciary has weakened the writ of General Musharraf.

This revelation suggests the real rationale behind the declaration of emergency is the legal system and the official line, that the first excuse for emergency rule is the main one, is dubious if not baseless. It is worth noting that the proclamation text is dominated by criticism of the judiciary. Moreover, the imposition of emergency rule comes at a time when the Supreme Court was due to make its judgement on whether or not the 6 October 2007 presidential election, that saw Musharraf elected as President for a third term, was constitutionally valid. If the courts had passed a judgement against his re-election, Musharraf would have found himself cornered by a judicial proclamation that would invalidate his position as President, but not as the Chief of Army Staff.

In the short term, and from the Musharraf’s perspective, it might have made sense to declare emergency, and suspend a constitution that could have potentially been used to reduce his authority. However, in the current political crisis, his decision to declare emergency is embedded in strategic ineptitude. The act was strategic folly. Even if the courts had proclaimed that Musharraf’s victory in October was constitutionally invalid, it would have done little to deplete his authority. Musharraf wears two hats at the same time. If the presidential hat requires temporary shelving, the military one is tightened. This became clear on the day he declared emergency. The text of the declaration of emergency clearly states that it has been endorsed and executed by the Chief of Army Staff. Musharraf knows that as President he does not have the constitutional authority to declare emergency.

In the long term his move has several shortfalls. Musharraf’s domestic support base has already been weakened by events this year. The King’s party, a coalition that provides Musharraf with the political capital he requires to maintain a majority in the national assembly is in disarray. Many of its leaders have recently voiced concern about his apparent desire to work out a US-backed democracy plan with Bhutto’s Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP).

Emergency rule will further undermine his authority. It threatens the one hope Musharraf had of remaining in power (semi-)legitimately. While the PPP head, Bhutto, had been taken into confidence about the decision to declare emergency, senior party members have openly opposed martial law. Reportedly, party leaders had asked Bhutto to oppose martial law, but, as one PPP leader stated, ‘she didn't give any importance to the suggestion of almost all the senior party leaders’. It should be remembered that Bhutto is one person; the US might have placed a great deal of confidence in her ability to capitalize on the opposition’s strength in the national assembly, but without the unequivocal support of her party leaders, Bhutto’s charismatic appeal will not win her an election. As a potential collaborator in national politics, Musharraf might have paid some attention to the power structure within the PPP. The ideal plan for him would be to negotiate a deal with the PPP leader that placed him in the Presidential throne and Bhutto in the PM’s seat. This however, can only take place if the PPP leaders agree to this arrangement. There is already a great deal of dissent amongst its grass roots workers. They do not see the merit in collaborating with a dictator who has done everything possible to squash political opposition in Pakistan. If senior PPP leaders lose faith in Bhutto and defect to other parties, Musharraf and the PPP leader’s alleged grand plans could be in jeopardy.

In the next few days, while Bhutto and Musharraf may continue to plan collaboratively for an election that has been reportedly postponed by a year, silent as well as vocal actors in Musharraf’s opposition have been provided with a new lease of life. Declaring a state of emergency and undertaking heavy-handed action against the courts, Musharraf has confronted the judiciary and a Chief Justice who commands a degree of popular and political support within Pakistan. This summer, he was forced to reinstate the Chief Justice in light of the popular appeal that the Judge had amassed in a period of less than a month. It is worth noting that the Chief Justice was previously an insignificant actor in the opposition to military rule. Today, his rallies are attended by thousands of Pakistanis who desire change. Pitting him once again in the opposition camp will expand the base of the popular opposition in a country torn by its military leaders. Over a thousand lawyers clashed with authorities on Monday in Multan which could portend further unrest to come.

Domestic troubles are mirrored by complications in the field of foreign affairs. Declaring emergency rule when the US Secretary of State had publicly warned their key ally to refrain from suspending the constitution, Musharraf has peeved US law makers. Emergency, or martial law, as Pakistani jurists have interpreted the declaration, is a set-back to a democratic process backed by Washington. It is crucial the US continues to back Pakistan however; without American support, Pakistan will be economically destroyed and the state could suffer a balkanization process that has every potential to diversify the opposition base against the US’ war on terror. However, the declaration of emergency could not have come at a worse time. America’s political leaders are gearing up for forthcoming elections. It will be difficult to continue to support a state with the same degree of commitment when its army dictator has squashed a US-backed democratic process. Ordinarily, America’s political and strategic elite might have found a loophole to defend the actions of their key ally in the War against Terror, but with the electoral momentum gaining speed within the US, the extent of support meted out to Musharraf will be watched carefully and even spun for political advantage. The situation, if not resolved quickly, has the potential to hamper relations with the US.

Any reduction in military and financial aid to Pakistan will not only hamper the Pakistani military’s ability to fight Taliban and pro-Taliban forces along the Pakistan-Afghan border, but could also weaken the position of the Chief of Staff, something that is not desirable in a state that has become accustomed to the concept of military coups headed by zealous opportunists from within the military brass. Fears that restive factions within the military may see an opportunity to move against Musharraf are not unfounded. Prominent corps commanders within the army recently challenged Musharraf’s decision to storm the Lal Masjid in Islamabad; some had even begun to question the General’s non-Punjabi ethnicity, a non-issue in 1999, the year Musharraf assumed the role as the nation’s leader.

Musharraf’s latest decision to declare emergency rule is embedded in strategic folly rather than political astuteness. Both domestically and internationally, the decision hurts his already dwindling support. Musharraf has merely postponed what he has now made almost inevitable, his downfall.

Rudra Chaudhuri
Research Associate, Asia Security Programme

Andrew Legon
Research Associate, Asia Security Programme

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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