Pakistan's tenuous political and security situation just got a whole lot worse. After days of rumors that President Pervez Musharraf would impose a state of emergency in the violence-wracked country, Musharraf followed through on Saturday in a move that is likely to plunge the county into further political turmoil and provide an opening for the Taliban and al Qaeda to consolidate their gains in Pakistan's northwest tribal areas.
In what Pakistan's English language news organization Dawn called "General Musharraf's Second Coup," Musharraf deployed units of the paramilitary Rangers throughout the capital on Saturday just prior to declaring the state of emergency. The constitution was suspended and replaced by a Provisional Constitutional Order. In an attempt to control the flow of information, communications inside Islamabad were shut down - telephone service was interrupted, cable stations, and news organizations were ordered off the air.
Musharraf then moved against Pakistan's Supreme Court, his primary political enemy over the past year. The Supreme Court building in Islamabad was quickly surrounded. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and seven other justices declared the state of emergency "illegal and unconstitutional" and pleaded with the powerful army corps commanders, the military and civilian leadership, to reject the oath of Musharraf's new constitution.
Chaudhry, along with hundreds of political opposition leaders, lawyers, and members of the media have since been arrested. Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association and an influential member of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's party, was also arrested along with Hamid Gul, the former leader of Pakistan's infamous Inter Services Intelligence agency and architect of the Taliban movement.
Upon hearing the news of the imposition of the state of emergency, Benazir Bhutto boarded a plane in the United Arab Emirates and landed in Karachi. Bhutto was met at the airport by police and was escorted to her home, which remains surrounded by government forces.
In his address to the nation, Musharraf cited the rise in terrorist attacks, the creeping power of Pakistan's Supreme Court, and an economic downturn as the reasons for taking such drastic action. "Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization," Musharraf declared. But the reasoning behind Musharraf's imposition of a state of emergency is more likely due to his weakening political situation, not the rise of Islamist militancy in the country.
Musharraf's usurpation has weakened, not strengthened his ability to fight the dramatic rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda in the Northwest Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and elsewhere. National unity and political consensus is needed to fight the rising threat of militancy sweeping across Pakistan, yet the state of emergency has pushed Musharraf's potential political allies into the opposition, weakening support for the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Militarily, Musharraf has focused his energy on quelling the political opposition, which will detract from his ability to tackle the increasing radicalism. And to is unclear what effect, if any, the state of emergency will have on the sagging morale of the Pakistani military and police, which have performed poorly in the tribal areas of Waziristan and the settled district of Swat. Soldiers have been captured by the hundreds and surrendered or deserted by the dozens. The Taliban has beheaded well over a dozen soldiers and policemen. The Pakistani military also boasts an inordinately high number of Pashtuns in its security forces, many whom are sympathetic to the Islamists. Other Pakistani soldiers resent the thought of fighting what they perceive as an American war against their own citizens.
Musharraf's control over the security forces will be tested over the coming months. It has been widely speculated that significant numbers of junior and senior military officers, as well as enlisted men, are covertly supporting the Taliban, and much of the Inter Services Intelligence agency is thought to covertly support the Taliban.
In the tribal agencies and settled district of the Northwest Frontier Province, the government's writ is likely to diminish, not expand, as Musharraf attempts to consolidate his political control in Islamabad. Unless Musharraf opts to leverage the full weight of the military into the hinterlands of the Northwest Frontier Province, unenforced peace accords are likely to be the order of the day.
These deals have collapsed in the past, and allowed al Qaeda to reconstitute its central command network. The Taliban and al Qaeda are known to be actively running 29 training camps in North and South Waziristan alone. These camps, which churn out suicide bombers and trained fighters, have been the wellspring of al Qaeda's attacks and plots against the West. And further government capitulation in the Northwest Frontier Province will provide the terrorists with greater room to arm, train, refit, and launch strikes not only against the Pakistani government, but against Afghanistan, India, and the West as well.
But again, the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda in the Northwest Frontier Province was not behind Musharraf's decision to plunge the country into political turmoil. Musharraf's concern first and foremost is to strengthen his own hand in dealing with the secular opposition to his military rule.
Musharraf's immediate actions after the declaration of a state of emergency reinforce this view. Rather than deploying additional forces to the Northwest Frontier Province, launching an operation, or shutting down radical mosques and madrassas in Pakistan's heartland, Musharraf instead struck out at his political enemies in Islamabad and the state institutions that had sought to undermine his political power. The Supreme Court and chief Justice Chaudhry were at the top of the list, with the media, political parties, and lawyers a close second.
The Supreme Court was in the process of ruling on the constitutionality of Musharraf's reelection as president. Pakistan's constitution forbids Musharraf to run as president while also serving as chief of staff of the armed forces. A decision was expected within days, and it is widely believed the court was set to rule against Musharraf.
There were good reasons for Musharraf to believe the court would rule against him. He has clashed with Chaudhry for the past year as the Supreme Court has taken an increasingly activist role in opposing his administration. During the spring, Musharraf attempted to oust Chaudhry but was forces to reinstate him after a wave of street protests and in the face of mounting political pressure.
The court's decisions were prominently noted in Musharraf's speech to the nation. The court has ordered the release of over 60 al Qaeda suspects being held without charge. The court also ordered the release of all those detained in the assault on the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad, save Abdul Aziz, one of the two pro-Taliban leaders of the mosque.
The repercussions of Musharraf's second coup are far reaching for both the political and security situation. On the political front, Musharraf's decision to impose a state of emergency allows him to dominate the political scene in the short term, but his ability to remain in power over the long term has diminished. The prospects of reinstating the political process and reconciling with Bhutto have also been reduced. Bhutto had cut a deal with Musharraf and was to serve as his prime minister after the now-canceled January parliamentary elections. That status of that arrangement is now unknown.
Bhutto has opposed the state of emergency. "It's really a declaration of martial law," she said. "My party and I would like to see the constitution restored." Bhutto ally Aitzaz Ahsan was more forceful. "One man has taken [an] entire nation hostage," said Ahsan to a crowd as he was taken away by police. "Time has come for General Musharraf to go." The crowd chanted "go, go, go."
Musharraf's political enemies have already spoken out. "It is not an emergency, it's martial law. One man has put the country at stake to save his rule," said the pro-Taliban Hamid Gul as he was being arrested. "We are heading towards a chaotic situation, heading towards anarchy," said Nawaz Sharif, the exiled former prime minister who is believed to have received money from Osama bin Laden in the past.
Imran Khan, a former cricket star and now leader of an opposition party, called on Pakistanis to resist Musharraf. "He has committed high treason by negating the orders of the Supreme Court which bars him from taking any unconstitutional steps and by sending in troops after the Supreme Court decision," said Khan, who has espoused support for the Taliban and Islamist causes in the past.
The declaration of a state of emergency is one of the worst possible moves Musharraf could have made to address the problem of the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda. He has alienated his potential allies, turned away Benazir Bhutto, and united disparate elements of the opposition. Secular parties and Islamists will now share a single voice in opposition to his blatant disregard for the rule of law, and the emphasis of the Pakistani security forces will shift from combating the Taliban to maintaining order in an increasingly turbulent political environment.
By Bill Roggio