AS I try and follow events in Pakistan from a distance on the Internet and cable TV, I find that of late, all the country’s problems seem to have disappeared, leaving only the issue of Musharraf’s fate to be resolved.
Day in and day out, TV chat shows and newspaper editorials discuss the pros and cons of trying the ex-president. Politicians and pundits talk of little else. The entire nation seems to be fixated on this one cause. To hear some of the great and the good on the subject, we could be excused for thinking that once Musharraf has been tried and punished, we would have solved all our problems.
The assumption of guilt is taken for granted, and indeed, there seems little doubt that the ex-dictator violated the constitution more than once. I am no constitutional expert, but it is clear that by sacking an elected government and seizing power in 1999, he committed a capital offence. However, de jure is not de facto.
Musharraf was not alone in mounting his coup. Indeed, he was not even on Pakistani soil when 111 Brigade in Rawalpindi moved to take over the reins of power. No doubt these early steps were taken as part of a contingency plan worked out earlier, but the fact is that Musharraf had issued no direct orders to his subordinates while he was airborne on that fateful flight from Colombo 10 years ago.
So if Musharraf is to be tried, all his junta of corps commanders and senior generals, as well as subordinate officers who led 111 Brigade, would have to be tried with him. Then there are the judges who granted Musharraf the constitutional cover to govern. Next come the members of parliament who elected him in 2002. Finally, if he is deemed to be a usurper by the court, then all his orders and actions would also be illegal.
Can we really afford to open this can of worms? I love legal dramas as much as anybody else, but Musharraf’s trial would run for months, even years. Those who demand that we need to put a dictator in the dock to end military intervention once and for all have a point. Perhaps an example needs to be set to deter ambitious generals.
The question is whether we need this distraction at this critical juncture. We should also remember that as an institution, the army protects its own. While there appears to be little stomach in the current high command to trigger a confrontation with an elected government, voices in GHQ would certainly demand that their ex-chief, as well as many senior serving and retired officers, be kept out of the dock.
In an ideal world, I would be among those clamouring for a trial. We have suffered at the hands of tin-pot dictators for far too long to let yet another one escape to a comfortable retirement. But there are times when revenge has to be put aside in the interest of larger considerations. With the army finally engaged in fighting the deadly threat posed by the Taliban, the last thing it needs is to be distracted from the hard task at hand.
Gen Kayani, the present army chief, would be placed in an impossible position, with his loyalty to the army pulling in one direction, while his oath to defend the constitution demanding that he give evidence against his ex-boss.
Other matters require the attention of our politicians, none among them more urgent than establishing the legitimacy and effectiveness of civilian rule.
Should Musharraf actually be brought to trial, he is not the kind of man to meekly plead guilty and accept his punishment. He would want to drag down as many people with him as he could, and would make many accusations against the politicians he hated. Much dirty linen would be washed before a public glued to their TV sets. And as charges and counter-charges flew back and forth in the court and in the ether, the tenuous working relationship between the PPP and PML-N would be strained to a breaking point and beyond.
The regional situation also requires a consensus between the government, the opposition and the army. After a highly controversial election in Afghanistan, the internal situation now seems shakier than ever. And with the Taliban gaining in strength and momentum, western governments are coming under increasing pressure to end, or at least limit, the involvement of their troops. All these factors will demand a clear response from Pakistan.
We should be under no delusion that an extended and divisive trial would create a power vacuum in Pakistan, one that hostile forces would exploit. Balochistan is still seething; the domestic economy is reeling from protracted power shortages; and above all, the global economy is struggling to emerge from the recent recession.
Pakistani governments have not distinguished themselves by their efficiency at the best of times. And these are not the best of times. Do we really want the entire power structure of the country to be convulsed by a protracted legal battle that is reflected in the political arena as well?
And although it should not be relevant to the discussion, the fact is that over the years, we have allowed Saudi Arabia an enormous degree of leverage in our internal affairs. When King Abdullah sent an official plane to London to ferry Musharraf to the Saudi capital where he ensured a red-carpet welcome for his guest, he was sending a signal to Pakistani politicians. This message was underlined when he summoned Nawaz Sharif to tell him to back off.
Clearly, the Saudis regard Musharraf as a friend, and would not want to see him tried and sentenced. I’m sure that the Americans have conveyed the same message, although perhaps a little less obviously. Although denied later by a government spokesman, President Zardari has admitted that foreign powers with an interest in Pakistan did have a hand in brokering a safe-passage for Musharraf.
Despite all these reasons for moving on, many politicians and pundits in Pakistan simply cannot let go of this issue. They insist that a trial is needed to prevent military coups in future. They forget that the real deterrent for power-hungry generals is not the hanging of one of their predecessors, but a popular and effective elected government. In short, good governance is a better guarantee of constitutional rule than a dead general.