Originally Published 2004-05-20 11:23:03 Published on May 20, 2004
The General and his uniform
To be or not to be in uniform, that is the General's dilemma now. In recent months, Pakistan has been subjected to a rather unedifying spectacle of one Musharraf crony after another urging him to stay on as the COAS in the "national interest", even after December 31 this year. Last year Gen Musharraf made a commitment to the nation, by way of the 17th Amendment, to shed his uniform by the year-end. Considering Gen Musharraf's own views on the subject, and that his sycophants of the first order simply can't go on this unseemly campaign trail without some encouragement from him, it is not too difficult to predict which way the "national interest" will go by December 31.

Conventional wisdom says us that in Pakistan's political environment, the position that matters most in terms of power and clout is that of the army chief. For five years, Gen Musharraf ran the show first as Chief Executive and then as President, but it is common knowledge that he derives his real source of strength and power from the military establishment he rules over as the COAS. If he were to doff his uniform on December 31, Gen Musharraf can no longer make the military amenable to his dictates on either policy or postings. The implication here is that he would have to consult the new helmsman on important policy decisions and with a new order gradually emerging in the army, he would no longer be in a position to leverage its strength to his advantage. The very idea of delegating powers would be a hard choice to make for Gen Musharraf who, despite an elected government, calls all the shots without the botheration of consulting a rival centre of power. 

It is obvious that the new army chief would create an autonomous power centre sooner or later and, in an acute political crisis, President Musharraf will need the army chief's blessing for taking decisive action. Was it not the dismissal of Gen Musharraf as the COAS by a civilian prime minister that precipitated the coup on October 12, 1999? Has not the military got its own priorities and preferences, and played a dubious kind of power politics of patronage and convenience? Certainly, after being a civilian president, Gen Musharraf can still remain as the establishment's man--like the bureaucrat-turned-head of state Ghulam Ishaq Khan but that does not necessarily afford him the luxury of indispensablility. If the military can ease Ghulam Ishaq out of office when he became a liability and even an embarrassment, so can it do to retired Gen Musharraf. Field Marshal Ayub Khan, once invinsible, also found out to his dismay in 1969 that when the chips are down, you can't count on the support of the top brass. The much-bandied about option of elevating himself as Field Marshal, retire and then remain President would certainly be unpalatable to Gen Musharraf, for he knows that the people would soon start calling him "Fraud Marshal", as happened to Ayub Khan.

Survival is only one part of the problem. Another is that, somebody else will appropriate decisions in "national interest". In Pakistan, "national interest" is what the army resolve it is. Divergence of perception on what is the best policy for the country in a given situation may not happen soon after President Musharraf retires from the army, but in the long run it cannot be ruled out as a distinct possibility. For instance, Musharraf is singularly credited with bringing about the sharp reversal of policy on Taliban and militant Islamic elements that threaten the West after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York . Indeed, he had a tough time convincing his Corps commanders on the need to do this, and even had to prematurely retire a potential troublemaker in the making, ISI chief Gen Mahmud Ahmad, much against the wishes of the devout pan-Islamic constituency both within the armed forces and without. Can Musharraf engineer radical policy shifts, or ensure the continuity of his policies, unless he dons the uniform?

Replying to a question on these lines in the BBC's Hardtalk programme recently, Gen Musharraf gave this reply: "If whoever it is, understands strategy, has a strategic perception and has the perception of visions of Pakistan for the future, should go, this is where Pakistan should lead to, we want Pakistan to be futuristically dynamic, vibrant, playing its important role." What if the "strategic perception" and the "perception of visions" that the general subscribes to do actually change or if they are in some way diluted? It is not difficult to see who will gain an upper hand even if the perceptional divergence is slight.

There is also a deeper political dimension to the position of the COAS. In Pakistan, even during democratic times-democracy in terms of parliament and elected governments as opposed to the culture of democracy-it is the COAS who had been the final arbiter of policy and polity. This is true even without the construct of a National Security Council, which Gen Musharraf got in the bargain for his commitment to retire as enshrined in the 17th Amendment. Out of power, all politicians look to the army to "rescue" the country, and when in power, they behave in a manner that leaves no doubt in anyone's mind that they are beholden to the army for their power. This long-playing pantomime has-which produced the truism that Pakistan has only two parties: the political parties and the military-spawned all of the country's military coups. It was at its exhilarating best in July 1993 when the then COAS, Gen Abdul Waheed Kakkar, smoothly booted out both President Ghulam Ishaq and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the height of a bitter power tussle between the two.

When asked in the BBC programme about possibility that he may well remain the COAS beyond this year, Musharraf was evasive. "I wouldn't like to comment on that. I need to put a lot of thinking straight before that," he said. Thinking straight? This is exactly a roundabout way of saying that the decision to retire as the COAS would not come naturally to the General President, come December 31, 2004.

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