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Quitting army a risky proposition for Musharraf

Times Staff Writer

On any given day during the last eight years, President Pervez Musharraf was most likely to be found not at the ornate presidential compound in the capital, but here in this garrison city: at his desk at army headquarters, clad in familiar camouflage fatigues, greeted everywhere with the crisp salutes and studied deference accorded a four-star general.

Now, a farewell to arms appears inevitable, if not imminent.

Under a timetable he pledged to before he put his country under de facto martial law, the general was supposed to have stepped down as military chief today, before being sworn in for a new presidential term. Despite enormous domestic and international pressure, Musharraf will almost certainly not do so.

In recent days, the general has promised repeatedly to shed his uniform as soon as possible but has been elusive about a specific date. In the latest such pledge, he told the Associated Press on Wednesday that it probably would happen by the end of the month.

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For his patrons in the West, Musharraf’s relinquishing of his military role has become a non-negotiable necessity, a crucial prelude to the easing of the harsh emergency measures that were put into effect Nov. 3. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte will press the case in a visit to Islamabad on Friday.

Other key Western allies have taken a harder line. The British Commonwealth nations are threatening to suspend Pakistan’s membership unless Musharraf quits the army and lifts his emergency decree by Nov. 22.

Although the Bush administration says it believes the Pakistani leader’s promise to give up his army post as soon as possible, opposition leaders believe he will find one pretext after another to delay.

Many opposition activists believe that Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, will instead try to ease Western pressure by rolling back some provisions of emergency rule. Under the decree, the constitution is suspended, independent television channels have been knocked off the air and thousands of government critics have been jailed.

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Army life, with its power and perquisites, its unvarying attention to rank and ritual, has for decades been the 64-year-old leader’s milieu. The Pakistani military -- the world’s seventh-largest fighting force, equipped with nuclear weaponry and with nearly a million men under arms -- is the wellspring of Musharraf’s authority.

His rule has been in line with Pakistani tradition: The country has spent more than half its 60-year history under military rule.

Musharraf calls the uniform his second skin. Losing it will almost certainly diminish his power, bringing uncertainty to his place in public life.

In the jittery first days of the emergency decree, there was frenzied speculation about army loyalties. Though quickly discounted, there were persistent rumors of a possible counter-coup by the general’s generals. At meetings with Western counterparts, the demeanor of Musharraf’s subordinates was carefully scrutinized for signs of dissent in the ranks.

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“The army is not in isolation; it is very reflective of sentiments of society,” said Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst and former army officer who once served with Musharraf. “So like the rest of the nation, they are worried about what is happening. But it’s a professional army, and they rally around their chief.”

Although Musharraf faces no overt challenge from within the military, analysts said retaining the support of the army could quickly become a full-time job. In the meantime, as long as he remains army chief, pressing political problems will divert him from the military’s mission.

Violence is sweeping the country’s northwest region bordering Afghanistan, not only in insurgent-dominated tribal areas of Waziristan but in swaths of the North-West Frontier Province that are supposed to be under government control.

Supplanting beleaguered paramilitary troops, the army has now been handed the lead role in fighting in Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, where forces loyal to a pro-Taliban cleric have seized several towns, terrorized locals and captured dozens of government troops.

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“What’s happening up there is the big concern, and we’ve seen a real lack of attention being paid to it,” said a Western military official in Islamabad.

So far, demonstrations against the emergency decree have been limited in size, and the task of putting down protests and rounding up opposition leaders has fallen to police and paramilitary troops.

But analysts say that if unrest burgeoned to the point that the army was called in, troop morale would suffer, public respect for the military as an institution would plummet and the prospect of mutiny in the ranks would grow.

“My readout is that the patience of the military could wear thin if some of the hard-core loyalists feel that they or their interests are being threatened,” said Alexander Neill, head of the Asia security program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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Moreover, if the crisis drags on, the army may find itself playing the role of legal enforcer. One severe new measure allows civilians to be tried by military tribunals for anti-state activity -- a category which, in these perilous days, has come to include almost any form of dissent.

Amid the escalating political confrontation between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Western military officials have expressed hopes for a less rocky transition of power in the armed forces when the general steps down.

Musharraf’s heir apparent, military vice chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, is considered friendly to Western interests and serious about the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But Musharraf insists that even as a civilian head of state, he will continue to play an active military role.

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“Even if I am not in uniform, the army will be with me, let me assure you,” he told reporters Sunday. “I command by self-example.”

Several former generals and one current Pakistani army officer, asked about Musharraf’s predictions of undiminished influence sans military post, said, in essence: Good luck with that.

“Definitely, most definitely, once he sheds his uniform his authority will be reduced,” said Naeem Salik, a former brigadier who is now a scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

“You hand over to someone else, and you think they’re going to listen to what you say any more?” said Talat Masood, another former general who is now an analyst and commentator. “If he thinks that, he’s sadly mistaken.”

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An active-duty senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, chose his words carefully. “The loyalty is to the institution, not the man,” he said. “No one can ask us to go against that.”

Some analysts believe Musharraf may balk at handing over command even to Kiani, his handpicked successor and protege.

Musharraf says he will resign as military chief as soon as the Supreme Court certifies his election by lawmakers last month, clearing the way for his presidential inauguration.

But since all high court justices considered disloyal have been fired and replaced, there is no real obstacle to a speedy ruling -- unless the Pakistani leader wants it that way.

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“He’ll always want an excuse not to take off the uniform,” said Ayaz Amir, a columnist for the Dawn newspaper. “This is a ball he can keep in the air, or try to, for as long as he likes.”

Pakistan’s entire history has been a push-pull between civilian leaders and army generals, and the generals most often prevail.

The legacies resonate to this day: Bhutto’s father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown and eventually hanged by an army general, Zia ul-Haq. Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is now seething in exile, hoping to forge an opposition alliance with Bhutto.

Given Pakistan’s legacy of military rule, the army remains the dominant force, wielding unsurpassed political and economic clout. In part because they are well-positioned to secure lucrative patronage jobs upon retirement, or reap financial windfalls from military contractors, senior generals zealously guard against any erosion of army powers.

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The upper echelon of the Pakistani military is an exclusive club. Most senior officers were trained in the United States or Britain, which bolsters their rapport with Western military advisors, who have the ear of diplomats and political leaders. Pakistan has received billions of dollars in military aid since Sept. 11.

“They’re soldiers, and so are we,” said another Western military advisor. “As far as military-to-military matters, we generally feel we can do business. It’s a good, professional relationship.”

But analysts said Musharraf’s bid to cling to power, and the harrowing drama surrounding it, could ultimately trigger far-reaching changes as Pakistanis seek a new dynamic between civilian rulers and the armed forces.

“Maybe Musharraf really did want to be the transition man, the one remembered for helping bring about the change from military to civilian rule,” said security analyst Nasim Zehra. “But it’s too late for him to be that man now.”

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The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, chose a highly symbolic venue this week to appeal for a restoration of civil liberties: Musharraf’s alma mater, the elite National Defense University in Islamabad.

“Pakistan’s move toward democracy has been seriously set back,” the envoy told an assembled officer corps Tuesday.

Now, she said, it was up to Musharraf’s government “not to throw away in weeks what it has taken years to achieve.”

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laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.


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