November 28, 2007

Pervez Gives Up The Uniform

Pervez Musharraf has finally fulfilled his promise to resign from the military and rule as a civilian. More than three years after pledging to retire as Army chief of staff, and weeks after his gambit to run for the civilian post as an active-duty general, Musharraf finally bid his comrades farewell in an emotional valediction. At least one of his political opponents stated that it made "a lot of difference":

President Pervez Musharraf stepped down Wednesday from his powerful post as Pakistan's military commander, a day before he was to be sworn in as a civilian president in a long-delayed pledge not to hold both jobs.

During a change of command, Musharraf relinquished his post by handing over his ceremonial baton to his hand-picked successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

"(You) are the saviors of Pakistan," Musharraf said in an emotional final speech to the troops. He appeared to be blinking back tears as the guard of honor performed a final march-by.

Musharraf's retirement from the military has been a key opposition demand and the move may help defuse a possible boycott of parliamentary elections in January by parties opposed to his rule. Since seizing power in a coup in 1999, Musharraf has served as president while retaining his post as head of the armed forces.

Nawaz Sharif had demanded Musharraf's resignation from the Army, as had Benazir Bhutto. Sharif wants Musharraf to step aside altogether, but indicated that this step may suffice to have Sharif participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Saying that the step made "a lot of difference," Sharif said that he would boycott the elections only if all other political parties agreed to do so as well. Bhutto has put the same conditions on a boycott, which means that one will be very unlikely now.

As I wrote earlier, with Musharraf gone from the military, the Pakistani opposition parties will treat his election to the presidency as a fait accompli -- at least as long as Musharraf allows them to campaign. Rather than destabilizing the nation through a massive boycott and political meltdown, they will focus on winning a large number of seats in parliament to force Musharraf to work with them. It offers the path of least resistance, pun intended, to the restoration of civilian democracy in Pakistan. If Musharraf becomes a road block later, the path of obstructionism remains an option at any time.

Shairf gave a more expansive view of the war on terror, one that Americans may find somewhat disconcerting. While Bhutto offered the option of having the Americans attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Sharif wants more proof that these groups are terrorists in the first place. "If the outside world declares somebody a terrorist, we shall not act on it blindly," Sharif promised. He says that he can fight the war on terror more boldly and more intelligently than the Musharraf-led army, but he refuses to consider operations by foreign armies against terrorists in Pakistan. These policies fit with Sharif's outreach to the hardline religious parties of Pakistan.

Once again, we have a dearth of great choices in Pakistan. The best we can hope for is stability, at least for now.


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