Why Musharraf Failed

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, left, arrives with newly appointed army chief General Ashfaq Kayani for the change-of-command ceremony in Rawalpindi

"He may be an SOB," President Franklin D. Roosevelt said about then Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. "But he's our SOB." That lesser-evil outlook might just as easily have described the U.S. attitude toward Pakistan's General-turned-President Pervez Musharraf, who resigned on Aug. 18 in the face of looming impeachment. Nor was it only the West that saw Musharraf as preferable to the chaos and venality of the political system he overturned to seize power in 1999. He carried the support of the urban middle class, which was desperately looking for the stability and modernity that had eluded a political system dominated by competing feudal baronies.

It was not Musharraf's personality, however, that explained either his rise to power or his demise. His bloodless coup was not the product of some megalomaniac instinct on his own part; Musharraf was acting as the representative of a military institution whose leadership perceived itself to be under attack from a civilian government it viewed as corrupt and inept. That same institution had governed Pakistan for much of its history, and it was as head of that institution, and in consultation with its top echelon, that Musharraf ruled. It was only when the military leadership opted to retreat from running the government that he was forced to resign. Indeed, quite remarkably for a Pakistani leader of recent vintage, Musharraf departs from power with no serious allegations of personal corruption hanging over his head.

The military has opted to retreat from running the government in the face of overwhelming public opposition to Musharraf amid economic turbulence and mounting pressure from the West over Pakistan's role in enabling the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. It leaves the job of governance to a cast of political leaders for whom the military brass holds a well-established contempt, but nobody doubts that if the military's red lines are crossed, it always has the option of installing a new man in khaki. The military may have already signaled the limits on acceptable civilian authority last month, when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was forced to hastily backpedal from a plan to put the controversial Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization under direct civilian oversight via the Interior Ministry.

Today's civilian leaders will also be mindful of the military's belief that then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif provoked his own ouster by moving, under U.S. pressure, to rein in the military after its offensive against Indian forces in the Kargil region of Kashmir had brought the two countries to the brink of war. Still, so dismal had Pakistan's outlook been after a decade of the self-serving political duopoly of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, that many in the West and in Pakistan's urban middle classes saw Musharraf as a harbinger of stability and progress. But 9/11 and what followed ushered in a crisis from which the general never fully recovered.

The 9/11 attacks put the Pakistani military's long-standing role in Afghanistan into conflict with its most vital strategic alliance. Pakistan had used Afghan jihadists to wage proxy warfare against the Soviet Union on behalf of the U.S. And after the Red Army withdrew and the U.S. had no interest in the outcome of Afghanistan's civil war, Pakistani security services nurtured the Taliban and shoehorned it into power, ensuring that Afghanistan was ruled by a client of Islamabad. After al-Qaeda struck the U.S., Pakistan's key ally demanded support for a military campaign to oust the Taliban, the hosts of Osama bin Laden. Musharraf tried to bridge the gap by urging the Taliban to give up bin Laden and his organization. When that failed, Pakistan was forced to support the U.S. — or at least, not stand in the way of its assault on Afghanistan.

The urban middle class was happy to back Musharraf against domestic extremists, and they applauded his initiatives to challenge the influence of conservative Islam in education as well as the liberalization of the Pakistani media that had occurred on his watch. But the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan quickly became highly unpopular at home, and the buildup to the war in Iraq increased the alienation of broad sections of Pakistani society from Musharraf's alliance with Washington.

Musharraf found himself juggling political allies in search of a patina of legitimacy and manipulating elections as popular opinion turned against him, largely on the basis of his alliance with Washington. Moreover, the new reality in Afghanistan prompted the Pakistani security forces to begin playing what was essentially a double game. Despite its alliance with Washington, the Pakistani strategic establishment was not willing to accept the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which was closely allied with India, as an established power in Kabul. So, despite professing support for the NATO effort in Afghanistan, Pakistan continued to serve as the Taliban's key sanctuary, and it is alleged by Washington that the ISI continues to directly aid its longtime Taliban proxy. While Pakistan arrested some of the most important al-Qaeda captives currently in U.S. hands, it is generally assumed that Pakistan's tribal wilds are where bin Laden and al-Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, continue to operate. Even if the Pakistani security forces were playing both sides, the NATO campaign next door rallied the tribesmen of the Pakistani west behind local jihadist radicals, who are a growing threat not only in their home provinces, but also in some of Pakistan's key cities.

As he confronted widening opposition at home, Musharraf faced a key challenge emanating from overseas when his term ended last November. Washington appeared to have negotiated a compromise political deal in which Musharraf would share power with Benazir Bhutto, in an alliance that the U.S. hoped would stave off domestic opposition and strengthen Musharraf's ability to confront radicalism. But the deal floundered even before Bhutto's assassination last December. The general, once a symbol of the power of the military, had begun to believe that he was indispensable, and had moved to ride roughshod over all constitutional and legal challenges by declaring a state of emergency and dismissing the supreme court. The middle class had also turned decisively against Musharraf. By declaring a state of emergency, he provoked a confrontation that he was never likely to win, and in February the electorate handed down a stunning rebuke by denying his party a parliamentary majority. Amid a mounting domestic crisis, the military could not afford to remain tied to a leadership as unpopular as Musharraf's had become.

Despite the cathartic effect of Musharraf's ouster, it's unlikely to bring progress on the issues that matter most to the West. A civilian President and government is unlikely to be any more effective than Musharraf in response to rising militancy or in curbing the Taliban — indeed, the government has made clear that it favors a less confrontational attitude to the Islamists than Musharraf had taken. And, as frustrating as Musharraf had been to the U.S. on issues ranging from jihadist militancy to nuclear proliferation by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, as long as he was in power, there was a single address for complaints and demands. Musharraf leaves behind something of a power vacuum, in which authority is necessarily more diffuse. Indeed, General Pervez Musharraf's journey from military command to the presidency was a symptom of Pakistan's malaise, not its cause. He may depart from the scene, but the conflicts and contradictions that elevated him and then brought him down remain far from resolved.