Pakistan's long troubled politico-military calculus is again disturbingly animated - this time with the impending impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf, the former army chief, slated for Aug 11. Many ironies are linked with that date, including that it is the doughty general's 65th birthday and that this matter will be taken up by the recently elected Pakistani legislature a month before the seventh anniversary of 9/11.
9-11, as the tragic enormity of New York's Twin Towers has come to be known in the popular lexicon, brought terrorism, Pakistan and General Musharraf into sharp focus. At the time, the Bush dictum was that 'if you are not with us - you are against us'. The astute Musharraf, then the Pakistan Army Chief who had earlier successfully toppled the prime minister in a bloodless coup in October 1999 - made up his mind very quickly. The Pakistani military joined the US in the global war against terror but the people were virulently against it. Hence Musharraf's adroit duplicity where he ran with the jehadi hare while hunting with the US hounds.
In the last seven years Pakistan has gone through multiple turbulences that saw the general trying to amend the constitution in his favor, sacking the chief justice, deploying the military to flush out religious extremists from a mosque in the heart of Islamabad and finally giving in to the popular demand from the people to hold elections.
This return to democracy and civilian rule was marred by the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the challenge mounted by the religious rightwing who seized large swathes of territory in the FATA and NWFP region along the Pakistan-Afghan border. The writ of the Pakistani state and the military has been effectively challenged in 2007 by the very same extremist Islamist constituency that the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) had nurtured for decades.
Post elections in February 2008, the politics of Pakistan changed dramatically. The PPP led by Bhutto widower Asif Zardari metaphorically kissed and made up with arch-rival Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the glue that brought them together was their common anti-Musharraf conviction. A civilian prime minister, the little known Yousaf Raza Gilani was appointed a caretaker of sorts. In the intervening months, the brittle nature of the PPP-PML(N) coalition became all too visible. The PML-N left the coalition and it appeared as if Musharraf would be able to exploit this characteristic rift among Pakistan's major political parties - as the military has so successfully done since the 1950's.
However, the developments of Aug 7 have been dramatic - though not too unexpected. The PPP and the PML-N have come together in their desire to impeach General Musharraf - who in their view has violated many constitutional provisions - and usurped the high office of president. The normally feisty Musharraf had earlier planned to go to Beijing for the opening of the Olympics but latest reports indicate that he has prudently chosen to stay back in Islamabad to see how the 'impeachment cookie' crumbles.
The current power struggle is between the PPP, PML-N and a section of the judiciary, backed by the liberal spectrum of civil society on one side; ranged against them are the president, the PML-Q, some of the rightwing parties and elements in the ISI - who have now become autonomous actors. The key constituency is the Pakistani military and the orientation of the current army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and his Corps Commanders who form Pakistan Military Inc. Will they support the beleaguered president and the corporate interest of the military as an institution - or will they bow to popular sentiment and support the civilian dispensation of the PPP and PML-N? And how will the White House react even as it remains dependent and yet critical of the ISI's role in the war against terror?
Many other complex and tangled under-currents lie beneath the surface. But on current evidence and past experience, the probability of Musharraf dissolving parliament and imposing an emergency cannot be ruled out. In the event, Pakistan will enact the Sisyphean saga again and the 'fauj' will once again summarily displace the civilian leadership.
Today the Pakistani state as epitomized by Islamabad is in danger of being estranged from one section of its people - the neo-Taliban and the religious right wing as also losing a large part of territory. The FATA and NWFP provinces have become what Professor Harold Gould has perceptively described as the new 'jihadistan'. Peshawar may soon be declared its capital.
The Pakistani military must prevail in its current campaign against the neo-Taliban. This is a legitimate task but some elements are reminiscent of 1970-71. At that time, the Pakistani 'fauj', advised by the wily Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, rejected equitable political accommodation and ostensibly preserved the 'integrity' of the Pakistani state as defined by the 'fauj'. This led to mass killings of Bengali citizens and led to the dismemberment of Pakistan when its eastern part became the liberated Bangladesh. Apart from losing territory, the Pakistani Army had the blood of its own erstwhile citizens on its hands and has not undergone a catharsis or reconciliation with its dark and dubious past record that has tainted its pre 1947 professionalism.
Today General Musharraf sits atop this volatile and complex dynamic that is sloshing around in Pakistan and the proverbial triumvirate of Allah, Army and America are pitted both against one another and - together - against the will of the Pakistani people endorsed by the global support for civilian rule. A tactical ploy by the ISI backed by the more virulent military that has not changed its 'India as the arch-enemy' mindset is evident in the recent incidents of firing along the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC). Is the Pakistan GHQ playing the nationalist card and stoking latent insecurity about the eastern Indian front, even as it knows that the western Afghan front is a lost cause? Will this red-herring work?
These are turbulent times and the days following Aug 11 are likely to push Pakistan to the brink - again. India and other major interlocutors of Pakistan should be more alert than ever before as the Musharraf impeachment drama unfolds.