Politics Prof Kavita Khory '84 on Pakistan

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 - 12:00

Questioning Authority recently caught up with politics professor Kavita Khory, a native of Pakistan and a 1984 graduate of Mount Holyoke, to get her opinion on the present state of affairs in Pakistan under President Pervez Musharraf.

QA: Is Musharraf's assurance that he will hold elections by mid-January 2008 adequate, or should the U.S. require a specific schedule for elections?

KK: Under the current state of emergency--basically martial law--holding elections in January, or later in the year, will not confer legitimacy on Musharraf or his civilian allies. Given that a large number of politicians and members of civil society are under house arrest or in prison, it would be impossible to mount a meaningful election campaign. The emergency powers restrict freedom of movement and assembly, civilians can now be tried by martial courts, the media has been completely muzzled, and the constitution is suspended.

The United States' influence is limited. The Bush administration has painted itself into a corner by investing all of its political capital in an individual (Musharraf) while ignoring a vibrant civil society in Pakistan. The administration barely acknowledged Benazir Bhutto's existence until the last year or so when it became clear that Musharraf's position as both head of the army and president was becoming increasingly untenable. In Pakistan, the United States' support of Benazir Bhutto and its efforts to facilitate a rapprochement between the General and Bhutto undermines her credibility, while intensifying anti-U.S. sentiment.

QA: Suppose Pakistan does hold elections in early 2008; is there a likely outcome? Is Pakistan in a position to transition into a democratic system, or is there likely to be chaos?

KK: General Musharraf has announced that elections will take place on January 8. Holding elections under the current state of emergency, however, will not confer legitimacy on any government, which, after all, is Musharraf's main objective. Ironically, under Musharraf, the judiciary had been remarkably free until he fired Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March. The media in particular was perhaps freer than at any other time in Pakistan. Although most political parties are rather weak and lack broad-based national support, there is a strong civil society and, for the first time in more than 30 years, students in Pakistan are mobilizing against the regime, challenging the traditional structures of power, calling for a restoration of the constitutional process, an independent judiciary, and a free press and broadcast media. Although the situation on the ground is tense, it is not hopeless, nor is it likely to descend into complete anarchy in most parts of Pakistan. The northwest frontier region bordering Afghanistan is a different matter; there the military is conducting counterinsurgency operations against the so-called Pakistani Taliban, who have extended their control into Swat, a relatively settled area when compared with the border region.

QA: Is Musharraf indispensable to the stability of South Asia at this point?

KK: No. Musharraf has been remarkably successful in selling himself as an "indispensable ally" in the United States' war on terrorism. The Bush administration erroneously bought into Musharraf's propaganda and continued to support him even when it was clear months ago that he was ineffective, unpopular, and increasingly a liability for the United States. In short, Musharraf's last ditch effort to hold on to power is creating more chaos and instability in Pakistan, distracting and demoralizing the military, and further compromising U.S. policy in the region.

QA: Is there more the U.S. could do to persuade Musharraf to suspend martial law and reinstate the constitution?

KK: First, the administration, especially President Bush, should stop praising Musharraf's role in combating terrorism. The Taliban have regrouped in Pakistan, under Musharraf's watch. Second, the U.S. could threaten to cut off military aid and assistance, although the administration's reluctance to do so is understandable. Third, the U.S. needs to consult other concerned countries, including China, who might have more leverage with Musharraf. Finally, and most importantly, the U.S. should resist backroom deals with the corps commanders in the military or politicians. At this time, any political arrangement that is perceived as having been engineered by the U.S. is doomed to fail in the long run.

QA: There is a lot of protest among Pakistanis against Musharraf’s recent actions. If Musharraf doesn't back down soon, do you think the protest is likely to escalate? To what point could it go?

KK: It's hard to predict whether the protests will grow in number and strength or decline over the next few weeks. For now, the protests are small and sporadic, led by civil society groups, like lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and students. Most political parties, except perhaps for Bhutto's PPP, lack the organizational strength to mobilize large crowds against the government. I think it's important to keep in mind that while we are seeing powerful images of politicians, lawyers, etc., clashing with law enforcement agencies, large swathes of the country, including many areas of Lahore and Karachi, remain largely unaffected. If the protests escalate to the point that the police cannot control the situation and the military is forced to take over civilian law enforcement operations, then Musharraf's support among the top generals will likely dissipate very quickly. The military is already demoralized and is unwilling to conduct operations against its own people, especially in the Punjab, which has the largest percentage of military recruits.

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