Supporters of former President Pervez Musharraf, head of the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) political party, protest as they demand a fair trial for him in Karachi March 9, 2014

April 03, 2014

When Two Sharifs Fight, Musharraf Gets Trampled

Originally published in Foreign Policy
Supporters of former President Pervez Musharraf, head of the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) political party, protest as they demand a fair trial for him in Karachi March 9, 2014. (Reuters)

Originally published in Foreign Policy.

Earlier this week, Pakistan finally indicted former president and army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf for high treason for abrogating the country's constitution in 2007. The indictment is likely to increase the strife between Pakistan's powerful military and relatively new civilian government, and the outcome may indicate whether those looking to seriously engage with Pakistan should continue talking to its army or consider shifting the emphasis towards the civilian government.

Musharraf unsurprisingly pled not guilty to all charges. That the government was able to get him in front of a judge is an achievement in itself. For months Musharraf dodged the bench for a variety of reasons: he claimed the journey from his home to the court was too perilous given the threats to his life from Pakistan's many terrorist groups, and bombs have been discovered along his convoy's path on more than one occasion (earlier on Thursday, a small bomb, apparently targeting his convoy, went off but caused no casualties). When his safety concerns eventually exhausted the judiciary's patience, Musharraf finally set out to face a specially-convened treason court, only for his vehicle to be unexpectedly diverted mid-route to an army hospital.

Musharraf was desperate to avoid the court date, for there is almost no way he can win. Pakistan's Supreme Court has already deemed his 2007 actions unconstitutional; any trial will be swift and the possible sentences of life in prison or death by hanging are daunting prospects. The open-and-shut nature of the case is partly why the government seems so keen to pursue it: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, toppled by Musharraf in 1999, will not only be able to bring his old nemesis to task, but will also be able to signal to the military that the days of army coups being pulled off with impunity are over and military interference in his government's affairs will not be taken lightly.

The precedent the case creates for humiliating an army chief, the most powerful individual in Pakistan, in front of civilian institutions can arguably be seen as a step forward for the fledgling democracy. That is exactly why the army has reportedly worked furiously behind the scenes to prevent judicial action against Musharraf.

Current Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation to Nawaz) has personal connections to Musharraf. Sharif's elder brother, Shabbir, was Musharraf's army coursemate. When Shabbir was killed in a war with India in 1971, Musharraf reportedly took the much younger Sharif under his wing and even appointed him as his Military Secretary in 2002. Beyond the bonhomie, Gen. Sharif has a strong interest in not having the power of his station debased by the indictment and possible conviction. Such a precedent might mean future army chiefs will also have their conduct retroactively condemned and punished by institutions historically alien to the army.

Prime Minister Sharif wants to put the army in its place while simultaneously avoiding a direct clash with the institution by egging the courts into taking center stage in the proceedings. The judiciary, gutted by Musharraf in 2007 but later restored, is a keen participant. Gen. Sharif doesn't seem to be buying the ploy, however.

Musharraf's backers have tried to broker deals that would allow him to leave the country under the pretext of visiting his ailing mother in the United Arab Emirates, or going abroad to seek advanced treatment for a questionable "heart condition." This exile, they argue, would remove the Musharraf problem altogether and avoid embarrassing the army. The Interior Ministry has put Musharraf's name on a no-fly list, however, and the decision to allow Musharraf to leave (likely never to return) is essentially a political decision resting in Prime Minister Sharif's hands. An "overwhelming majority" of Prime Minister Sharif's own party members strongly oppose letting Musharraf flee.

Prime Minister Sharif picked Gen. Sharif to be the new army chief in November 2013, despite perceptions that the general was an outside choice, largely in the hope of dismantling the previous army chief's ruling cabal and strengthening the civilian government's position. The government and the army have already disagreed strongly on whether or not to fight or negotiate with anti-state Taliban militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Musharraf case is an additional point of strife. Prime Minister Sharif is working hard to balance bringing the army to heel without pushing it too far, the consequences of which he experienced at Musharraf's hands in 1999.

The case against Musharraf, it can be argued, was an unnecessary provocation of the army and a distraction from Pakistan's real crises of governance requiring critical economic reforms and dealing with the country's Taliban infestation. Proceedings are now probably too far-gone for either side to back down without losing face, however. Which of the Sharifs gets his way will indicate whether or not the government has the determination to assert itself over the historically dominant military and will signal to the United States whether it needs to adjust its tendency to favor talking primarily to Pakistan's military when it wants to get things done in the region.

For now, all eyes are on Musharraf.