Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president since he seized power in a coup in 1999, announced his resignation in a television address to the country earlier today. Facing possible impeachment, Musharraf jumped before he was pushed, and in doing so probably saved Pakistan a lot of time and attention it will need to focus on the growing internal instability and increased economic troubles.
The public consensus that Musharraf needed to go was near overwhelming: The most recent International Republican Institute poll of Pakistani public opinion in July 2008 showed that 83 percent of the Pakistani population believed he should resign. Pakistanis celebrated in the streets throughout the country following his resignation. Mohammed Mian Soomro, chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, took over as president. Soomro will serve in a caretaker position until the country’s Electoral College—consisting of four provincial assemblies and the national assembly—elects a new president.
Given Musharraf’s deep unpopularity in Pakistan, his resignation is an important opportunity to adjust U.S. policy. Musharraf’s political ship has been sinking, and fast, since a series of political missteps over the past year. The Red Mosque crackdown in July 2007, in which he authorized a raid of a radical mosque in Islamabad, resulted in hundreds killed and caused widespread outrage in Pakistan.
His declaration of emergency rule in November 2007 to ensure his re-election to the office of the presidency further accelerated his demise. In a clear power grab, Musharraf removed 60 justices, placed the chief justice and political leaders under house arrest, cracked down on the media, and changed the constitution to further enlarge the powers of the presidency. But President Musharraf was also increasingly unpopular for his closeness to the United States. Pakistanis perceived that he was doing America’s bidding in its war on terrorist networks.
The February 2008 parliamentary elections were a major turning point. Musharraf’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, was soundly defeated at the polls in a clear statement of opposition to his rule. Pakistan’s new coalition government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, has been threatening his removal since the parliamentary elections in February 2008. Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies, who cast the votes to elect the president along with the national parliament, all passed resolutions in favor for his impeachment over the past week, and the coalition government has threatened to bring his impeachment to a parliamentary vote.
With Musharrraf gone, the United States has an opportunity to broaden its ties inside of Pakistan and move beyond its heavy reliance on individual leaders. The United States tied its fate to President Musharraf following the September 11 attacks, clinging to him as the linchpin that held Pakistan together despite his disinclination to seriously confront the sources of militancy within the country and long after the illegitimacy of his rule undercut his ability to persuade the Pakistani people about the need to do so. The United States contracted out its counterterrorism policies to Musharraf and his military, pouring more than $10 billion into Pakistan with little to show for it. Al Qaeda has regrouped in Pakistan; the Taliban has strengthened and is launching attacks into Afghanistan with greater frequency; and militant groups have consolidated a presence in the ungoverned border region and even extended into the settled areas of Pakistan.
The Bush administration, with its over-reliance on Musharraf, did not do enough to reach out to Pakistan’s political and civil society leaders or provide significant support to Pakistan’s democratic institutions, its education, or its economy. Furthermore, as his popularity plummeted, the Bush administration attempted to ensure Musharraf’s continued political survival—undermining the will of the Pakistani people and alienating the coalition government leaders. Not only did it refuse to condemn emergency rule, but it attempted to negotiate a power-sharing deal between President Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007.
The absence of a single controlling dictator will mean that the United States must now cultivate multiple poles of interest in the country. It is unclear whether the coalition government will be able to stick together without their nemesis, Pervez Musharraf, to unify them. And they have serious challenges to confront.
The strengthening militant movement in Pakistan is posing a greater threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan than ever before. Some members of the coalition government have proposed plans for greater economic development and limited political reintegration of the ungoverned spaces where Al Qaeda operates, but there is still hesitancy to confront the parallel ruling structures being established by the Pakistani Taliban. The ruling coalition, preoccupied with the political machinations in Islamabad, has limited control over the Pakistani military establishment, which still remains focused on its traditional Indian rivals.
Relations between India and Pakistan have deteriorated as Musharraf’s status remained unresolved. The United States recently presented evidence to Pakistan that its intelligence service collaborated in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. Furthermore, security is deteriorating in Kashmir, as Muslims in the Indian-controlled territory protest recent moves by the Indian government, and cross-border attacks have surged along the Line of Control, the border between Pakistani and Indian-controlled Kashmir. This is deeply worrisome for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, since a worsening relationship between the two countries will strengthen military hard-liners. It also reduces the Pakistani military’s incentive to focus on the terrorist threat within their borders; to sever their ties with militant groups who threaten India, but also support Al Qaeda and the Taliban; and to reorient their military toward a counterinsurgency rather than conventional-war strategy.
Pakistan’s government now faces mounting fiscal and trade deficits, while inflation reaches into the double digits. These internal problems are aggravated by skyrocketing global oil and food prices, causing shortages across the developing world. These costs put enormous pressure on a struggling Pakistani population, as well as a weak and divided coalition government.
Musharraf’s resignation is an opportunity for the United States to finally distance itself from its past policy of relying on one man to hold all of Pakistan’s problems in check. The United States must finally reorient its policies toward Pakistan and create a new, comprehensive strategy for enhancing security in Pakistan—one that recognizes that stability in Pakistan depends not only on curtailing extremism and militancy, but on strengthening Pakistan’s economy and democracy and on reducing tensions between Pakistan and its neighbors.