Posted by: Frederik Balfour on August 18, 2008
Call it a pre-emptive defensive strike. Faced with imminent impeachment proceedings against him, President Pervez Musharraf resigned today. I can’t say we didn’t see it coming. Musharraf had cancelled plans to attend the opening ceremony at the Olympics for fear that he would get ousted in absentia. Now at least maybe he can make it to Beijing for the closing ceremony, though not as a head of state.
While his announcement prompted the Karachi stock exchange to rebound more than 4%, local celebrations may be premature. The economic woes that supposedly led to his departure—raging inflation, slowing growth and a stalled privatization program—won’t be any easier for his successor to tackle than they were for Musharraf.
Of course a quick review of recent Pakistan history will reveal that Musharraf’s leave taking is just one more stanza in a modern epic characterized by coups, rigged elections and assassinations. The country has alternated between kleptocratic civilian governments and military dictatorships for the past couple of decades. Bear in mind that the leaders of the current coalition running the government following parliamentary elections in February have pretty checked pasts themselves. Asif Ali Zardari, husband of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has done time in the slammer for graft, while former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ,who was deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 coup was also convicted for corruption.
So what’s next for Musharraf? Like Bhutto, Zardari and Sharif, he may choose voluntary exile rather than to stick around and see what happens. Chances are the judges he sacked last fall when they opposed him will soon be reinstated, including Supreme Court Justic Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, a sworn opponent of Musharraf.
If he Musharraf does decide to stay on in Pakistan, the 65 year-old general could quietly retire from public life and follow in the footsteps of so many other retired generals and go work for the Fauji Foundation, a conglomerate run by former military men that does everything from banking to road building to manufacturing breakfast cereal. For more on Fauji click here for my BusinessWeek story.
But my guess is we haven’t seen the last of Musharraf. It’s an open secret that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, has played a major part in assisting and abetting terrorists, including the Taliban. The anti western coalition insurgency is more ensconced than ever in the autonomous regions on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border, and neither Sharif nor Zardari seem to have the wherewithal to reverse the tide. On the other hand, Pakistan has enjoyed more than $10 billion in aid from the U.S. since 9-11, and was considered a key ally in the war against terrorism, yet the situation on the border is worse now than it has ever been. If they deteriorate even further, Musharraf might help orchestrate another coup in the name of restoring law and order.
If only Musharraf had used some of that $10 billion on improving social services, the country might not be in such a bad way now. Poverty hasn’t improved, illiteracy is shockingly high, especially among young girls, and unless you are an army brat, you can forget about any social safety net. When people have little hope for in this life, it’s a short step to embrace Islamic extremism with its promise of an immediate reward in the next.
I base my observations on a visit I made to Hunza, a remote part of the Pakistan near the Chinese border at the time when the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. Life for the people there living at an altitude of 7800 feet is plenty harsh, yet thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation, which has pumped money into education, especially for girls for decades, the people have a sense of empowerment and belief in a better future. It is no coincidence that the predominantly Ismaili Shia communities have virtually no extremist Muslim members. If only the sense of hope and optimism could spread to the rest of the country.