Pakistan is again in the news due to the decision of the ruling coalition to impeach President Pervez Musharraf. India's National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan said that the impeachment may give rise to a big vacuum that will provide freedom to radical extremist elements.
In his words, "It leaves a big vacuum and we are deeply concerned about this vacuum because it leaves the radical extremist outfits with freedom to do what they like, not merely on the Pakistani-Afghan border but clearly on our side of the border too."
The concern of the NSA is genuine and alludes to the post- impeachment scenario that could lead to political turbulence and resultant deterioration in overall security situation providing free run not only to Taliban and other jihadi forces but to Kashmiri outfits supported by ISI.
The question now is who will replace Musharraf and how the devolution of presidential power will take place. These are likely to become important political sticking points. The moot question is whether the new president will continue to exercise all the existing powers or there will be devolution. Resolution of this will be crucial to the future of coalition politics in Pakistan.
Two scenarios can be visualized. One, there is no change in existing presidential powers and Musharraf is replaced by a civilian president. This is likely to be the most attractive option for Asif Ali Zardari who appears to be eyeing this position. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) holding the posts of both president and prime minister will be unacceptable to Nawaz Sharif as it effectively undermines his political position.
The second option is to devalue presidential powers in terms of his primacy in dissolution of parliament, national assembly and dismissal of PM or even the appointment of chief of the army staff. Devolution of presidential powers in Pakistan will reduce his status and make him similar to that of the Indian president. The only difference will be that he will continue to be chairman of the National Security Council (NSC). In India NSC is under the prime minister.
The next question: if the devolution of power does take place who will exercise these additional powers? The obvious choice is the PM. The delegation of these powers to Pakistan PM including control over nuclear command authority will make him a strong player. This will enhance the prestige and importance of the prime ministerial position from the near figurehead at present.
How the spoils of the two offices are shared will decide the future course of political stability and development in Pakistan. From the prevalent trends it appears that Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Mulsim League - Nawaz (PML-N) is likely to seek one of the two posts. The situation could become more favourable if the 54-member PML-Q splits post Musharraf and many join the PML-N.
The next issue is how the Pakistani Army will react to the post-Musharraf developments, even though at the present juncture it is satisfied in playing a low-key role. For stability in Pakistan it is important to have balance in powers of the ruling 'Troika' - president, PM and army chief.
However, the problem is that 60 years of Pakistan history shows that the army enjoys overwhelming and arbitrary powers. Whenever there is a tussle between the government and the army, the latter has no hesitation in demolishing all democratic institutions and establishing its rule. Even though it is somewhat restrained on account of the deteriorating internal situation and with Musharraf as president, it is likely to interfere if devolution of power is detrimental to its position.
At this point of time, it is not clear whether the army will support Nawaz Sharif or Zardari. Notwithstanding the political arrangement between the two, the army is likely to introduce enough checks and balances so as to balance the powers of the two constitutional offices.
The only wild card that can be imagined is if dissatisfied Nawaz Sharif was to challenge the army by openly colluding with Islamist factions and playing the anti-America card. Notwithstanding its dangerous consequences this is something that he may do for self-preservation.
Under the circumstances if the fractious politicians are not able to come to a sound political understanding and initiate the process of effective governance the possibility of army rule cannot be ruled out in Pakistan. The recent events like violation of the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan and the attack on Indian embassy in Afghanistan show that the Pakistan Army is again beginning to dictate Pakistani foreign policy. This represents a dangerous trend.
Another possibility is that the army may ask beleaguered Musharraf to dissolve parliament before resigning himself (with promise of immunity from prosecution and safe passage) as was done in 1993 when both the president and the prime minister resigned. Analysts say a caretaker government may be installed to oversee new elections within 90 days as provided in the constitution or an army-backed government appointed for a year or more to dismiss tainted politicians before calling the elections.
Lastly, what is the role of the US? In the post-Musharraf scenario the US is unlikely to support those institutional arrangements that are not in sync with its objective of prosecuting war on terror, in particular its determined operations against the Taliban. The situation on this front is becoming critical with repeated setbacks to security forces and growing stridency in Taliban operations. Given this perspective the US is likely to be more comfortable in dealing with Zardari and General Kayani than with Nawaz Sharif.
However, the US cannot totally ignore Nawaz Sharif for the same reason as the army. A miffed Sharif could become a rallying point for anti-American forces by raising nationalist feelings against the US. A second concern is how the US will distribute future anti-terrorism funding and military aid to Pakistan. The Bush administration has trusted Musharraf alone to pass on these funds to the various governors in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The US does not trust any other civilian or military institution. This will necessarily have to change. New institutional arrangements will indicate the political direction in which future American support is likely to swing.
Criticality of the political and economic situation in Pakistan is not fully appreciated. Militancy is on the rise despite attempts at engagement and selective operations essentially to keep NATO supply lines open. The ground perspective however is that apart from the Peshawar valley, the whole Pashtun-dominated region of the North West Frontier Province is effectively under the control of the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. The chaotic state of the economy is further playing into their hands as people become increasingly disgruntled.
On the economic front inflation is running at an exceptionally high 25 percent, the Karachi stock exchange has lost 35 percent of its value since April, the power situation is becoming critical with frequent electricity shutdowns and foreign exchange reserves have fallen from $17 billion last year to $9 billion, barely enough to cover imports for three months. These economic woes are compounded by an ongoing political crisis which Al Qaeda is already exploiting.
The unfolding scenario portends continuing instability. The most important issue from the Indian perspective is that as the political crisis escalates in Pakistan it comes under increasing pressure from a resurgent Taliban, unlawfulness and deteriorating economy, India will be used as a bogeyman to deflect internal problems. This translated into action means greater rhetoric on Jammu and Kashmir, stridency in tone and action to ratchet tensions on the Line of Control and support to separatist forces in Kashmir.
(Brig Arun Sahgal (Retd) is at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi and specialises on international security. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)