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Musharraf May Remain as Pakistan's Military Chief - 2004-09-22

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 on the grounds he could provide stable democracy, is strongly hinting he will not step down as army chief at the end of this year as promised. The general's apparent attempt to retain near total power could actually weaken his national standing and Pakistan's political stability.

The president's future as military chief is dominating local news and most analysts in Pakistan are asking not if, but when, the president will officially break his promise.

At issue is General Pervez Musharraf's dual role as president and head of the country's influential army. Pakistan-based political analyst Ayaz Amir says Mr. Musharraf has clung to his army post since he came to power in a military coup in 1999.

"That's the source of his strength; the army chief's position traditionally has always been the most powerful position in Pakistan and what makes him larger than life figure in Pakistan is that position," he said.

Since he seized control of the country, Mr. Musharraf has repeatedly assured his critics at home and abroad that he will bring democracy back to Pakistan. To that end, last year, the president promised a hard-line Islamic coalition known as the MMA that he would quit the military by the end of 2004.

In return, the MMA backed a constitutional amendment that greatly expanded Mr. Musharraf's political power.

The controversial agreement helped the president improve relations with some of Pakistan's anti-Western political parties, which had been upset with the general for allying with the United States in the war on terrorism.

But recently Mr. Musharraf and his allies have suggested Pakistan's turbulent politics may force the president to stay on as military chief.

As general, Mr. Musharraf, controls a key source of political power. Power his allies say he needs to balance a variety of competing political forces, including regional factions, conservative Islamic groups, and the largely independent military.

Musharraf loyalists insist that if the president is forced to give up his military post, Pakistan could descend into civil war and a militant Islamic takeover.

But his political critics, including Ayaz Amir, say the move could signal a new era of authoritarian rule.

"People who are interested or are concerned about Pakistan developing a stable political framework or system for itself say that this is a situation that must end," said Mr. Amir.

Legally, retaining the uniform appears to be prohibited under the new constitution. But the president's allies, who have a commanding majority in Parliament, say there are legal ways to work around the constitutional concerns.

Politically, President Musharraf faces stiff opposition. The conflict is fueling widespread anti-Musharraf sentiment, particularly in the restive Northern Provinces where the president's anti-terror policies are so unpopular.

The MMA says it will mobilize protests throughout the country if the president breaks his promise. And opposition leader Nisar Ali Khan says anger towards Mr. Musharraf could unify his various enemies.

"The opposition will come together," he predicted. "We will interact with all the other opposition groups to motivate the people of the Pakistan to stop the general in his tracks."

The United States has not openly criticized President Musharraf for hinting he will retain military control and has only repeated it supports democratic reform in Pakistan.

Analysts here say America's priority remains keeping Mr. Musharraf in power so he can go after Taleban and al Qaida militants hiding along Pakistan's rugged border with Afghanistan.

Friends and foes alike admit the president is in a difficult position: he may need the uniform to fight his political opponents in a country that rotates between military coups and nominal democracy. But his opposition will keep growing until he quits the military.