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Musharraf And His Uniform

Atif Z. Qadir

Pakistan’s recent past is a numbing rush of political scandals and upheavals -- an environment in which a leader’s clothing decisions would seem hardly worth attention. Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s insistence on wearing his army uniform is a telling one, however, which has caught attention beyond his own country’s borders. In an age of Democracy and political correctness, his strident march towards militarism seems backwards, but in the case of Pakistan it may be right.

Musharraf’s domestic support is a concern for the United States because of his cooperation with international efforts to contain global terrorism, end the narcotics trade, and maintain a balance of power in Central Asia. This has become particularly true with the rise of religious extremism in opposition to secular authoritarianism in Pakistan. Several opposition parties have demanded that Musharraf step down as Chief of Army Staff by the end of 2004, but he has hinted that he may not follow through. Since he is also President, opponents contend that democracy has no chance “under the shadow of uniform.”

General Musharraf’s army uniform further polarizes Pakistan’s already fractured political scene. In a recent interview with ARY TV, he said that 96 percent of the nation would support him if he wished to stay as both President and COAS. Outspoken support from the Punjabi Provincial Chief Minister, although his domestic backing is smaller, attests to the deep regional and ethnic schisms in the nation. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has noted that the matter will be decided in “accordance to the Constitution and in the best interest of Pakistan.” This precise point worries the opposition. Musharraf may justify keeping both of the posts using his Legal Framework Order, which gives him precedence over Parliament. A Supreme Court Bar Association leader noted this would be beyond the limits of the Order. He would be “prolonging his tenure at gunpoint” unless he could make another constitutional amendment.

General Musharraf’s reluctance to give up his uniform has broader significance. It is a clear statement that in Pakistani society, the military holds authority and not the government. Like General Zia-ul-Haq 22 years ago, Musharraf assumed national leadership in a military coup under the premise of reforming a discredited democratic government. Since 1999, he suspended the Constitution for three years, extended his regime several times, and dismissed two Prime Ministers within two years -- actions not akin to democracy. His regime also received over $1 billion in foreign aid, doubled developmental spending, and engineered a profound economic recovery. For a nation in which more than half of the population is illiterate and one-third is in poverty, this is enough of an improvement over previous democratic governments to overshadow his authoritarian bent. Regardless, the effect of Musharraf’s decision to keep his uniform involves a far more complex set of competing interests than just those of a government that is democratic versus one that produces results.

It is clear that the “benevolent authoritarianism” that Musharraf practices with the broad financial support of the Bush administration is facing incredible internal challenges in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, political rivalry, and regional and ethnic differences. Mosque bombings and subsequent Sunni-Shia rioting in Karachi, Quetta, Sialkot, and Multan have shaken the nation in the past year. Separatist movements have been supported by deep tribal alliances with extremist groups involved in Al-Qaeda. Ironically, radicalism became an entrenched phenomenon when another U.S.-supported dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, sought to “Islamicize” Pakistani society. Propped up by funding and weapons from the Americans and Saudis for use during the Afghan War (a proxy of the Cold War), groups created in that period, like the mujahadeen, form the foundation for the violence rocking Pakistan today. This leaves Musharraf with a greater challenge than simply stepping down as the Chief of Army Staff: how will he continue to ford the divide between his Western funding sources and the fractious constituency without himself becoming victim to one of two common ends of Pakistani leaders -- coup and assassination.

Atif Z. Qadir ’04 is an undergraduate working on a second bachelor’s degree.