Pakistan after Musharraf

Power has been draining away from Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for more than a year. His party suffered a stunning electoral defeat in February that accelerated his isolation. Had he departed peacefully when his constitutional term expired in November 2007, he would have won some respect. Instead, he imposed a state of emergency and sacked the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who was hearing a petition challenging the legality of his presidency. Now Musharraf is under heavy pressure to resign, threatened with impeachment and abandoned by most of his cronies, who accumulated land and money during his term and are now sidling in the direction of the new power brokers.

The February election put the Pakistan People’s Party led by Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, at the head of a fragile coalition government with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N. The country moved from a moth-eaten Musharraf dictatorship to a moth-eaten democracy.

Six months later, the ideals of the election, embraced by the hopeful youth and the poor of the country -- political morality, the rule of law, civic virtue, food subsidies, freedom and equality of opportunity -- once again lie at their feet, broken and scattered. Zardari and his men are extremely unpopular. Removing Musharraf, who is even more unpopular, might buy these venal politicians some time, but not much.

They moved against Musharraf only after Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief and onetime Musharraf protege, let it be known that there would be no military action to defend his former boss. Washington fell into line. In Kayani, U.S. leaders have a professional and military leader loyal to Washington, someone they imagine will do the United States’ bidding with or without Musharraf.

Earlier this year, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte had wanted to retain Musharraf until President Bush was out of office. And in July, Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, and a few British diplomats tried to negotiate a deal on behalf of Musharraf. But the Pakistani politicians no longer wanted to play ball, and now Washington has decided to let Musharraf go.

The Pakistanis insist that Musharraf must leave the country. Sanctuaries in Manhattan, Texas and the Turkish island of Büyükada are being considered. The general would prefer a large estate in Pakistan, preferably near a golf course, but security considerations alone make that infeasible.

Amid the hullabaloo, there was one hugely diverting moment this week -- a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Zardari, reportedly the second-richest man in the nation (with a fortune allegedly gained from illegal government kickbacks when his late wife was prime minister), accused Musharraf of corruption and of siphoning money from U.S. aid to Pakistan and transferring it to his private bank accounts. For once, the sound of laughter drowned out the thunder of money.

Musharraf’s departure will highlight the problems that confront the country, which is in the grips of a food and energy crisis. Inflation is out of control; it approached the 15% mark in May. The price of natural gas, used for cooking in many homes, has risen by 30%. Wheat, a staple, has seen a 20% price hike since November 2007, with the world’s stocks at record lows, and the Pakistani government has been cracking down on the smuggling of wheat flour into Afghanistan to serve the needs of NATO troops. According to a June survey, 86% of Pakistanis find it increasingly difficult to afford flour on a daily basis, for which they blame their new government.

Other problems persist. The ruling politicians remain divided on the restoration of the judges sacked by Musharraf. The chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, is generally seen as the most respected person in the country and is very popular with the people. Zardari is reluctant to see him back at the head of the Supreme Court. A possible compromise might be to offer him the presidency -- which the coalition government is trying to restore to its traditional ceremonial role. It would certainly unite the country for a short time.

And there is always the army. Last month, the country’s powerless (and incoherent) prime minister, Yusaf Raza Gillani, visited the United States. He was asked at a gathering at the Council of Foreign Relations whether he thought there was within Pakistan’s army “a broader acceptance of a more limited role for the army.” He assured the group that “the people have voted against dictatorship and for democracy, and therefore ... in future even ... the chief of the army staff is highly professional and is fully supporting the democracy.”

This convinces nobody. Over the last 50 years, the United States has worked mainly with the Pakistani army. This has been its preferred instrument. Nothing has changed. The question being asked is, how long before the military is back at the helm?

Tariq Ali is the author of, most recently, “The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power,” to be published in September.