By Lt.-Gen (R) Talat Masood –
The argument that Musharraf’s prosecution would destabilize our fragile democracy and the state is both flawed and untenable
It was a sad spectacle to watch the former army chief, who was virtually all-powerful for over eight years, to have fallen in disgrace and dragged in courts and confined to a sub-jail.
In its turbulent history of the last 65 years, Pakistan’s military dictators even if they were welcomed initially by certain elements in the society were forced out of office in disgrace (Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Pervez Musharraf), except for Zia-ul-Haq, who was saved the ignominy of facing a political upheaval by dying in a mysterious air crash.
Musharraf’s decision to return to Pakistan was perhaps, motivated by his belief that he could still play a legitimate political role and that he had a substantial following among the people. While his intentions may have been good, he failed to realize that politics without uniform is an entirely different ball game.
When he was a president in uniform, he was dictating political behaviour and those politicians and institutions that sided with him did so to serve their own narrow vested interests or were compelled by survival instinct.
After having been in self-exile for more than four years, Musharraf regrettably, has lost touch with reality. It appears he is mentally unable to reconcile to the changed power configuration that has emerged in his absence and that as a retired General he will have to face several grave constitutional and legal cases pending against him.
With a strong ego, he was easily misled by the presumed massive support that he saw for himself in the social media and the encouragement he received from his hangers- on who had their own agenda to promote.
The impulse to vindicate his person in the eyes of history and also to save his assets in Pakistan from being confiscated may have been another major motivating factor in his return.
Despite these strong impulses, his soldierly instincts and the advice of his genuine well wishers should have convinced him not to land in a legal and personally threatening minefield wherein he has to face multiple cases that include suspending the constitution, illegally detaining the judges and being an accomplice in the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and Baloch chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti.
The question that arises from his return is how his tribulations would and court cases impact on the broader aspect of civil-military relations and how is the military brass going to react? Surely, they would be in a dilemma. From what we have witnessed so far the military leadership has exercised great discretion and apart from beefing Musharraf’s personal security have distanced itself from his legal battles.
This is a prudent approach because if they were to put pressure on any state institution then they will invite severe criticism from the media and civil society, as there are clear and unambiguous charges against the former strongman.
With courts being independent and the current national mood supportive of an even and across-the-board application of law, there is no option for the military but to let the legal process take its normal course. Surely, like any citizen of Pakistan, Musharraf should be given the right to constitutional and legal process and allowed complete freedom through his attorneys to defend his actions.
The aggressive pursuit of his legal cases, however, would bring into the net many of his former colleagues in uniform and politicians, who were holding important positions and part of the decision making process. This would also include some who are still serving.
The defence lawyers are already using this line, arguing that prosecution of Musharraf would lead to destabilizing our fragile democracy and state.
From a legal and ethical perspective, this is an untenable argument and already rejected by the honourable judges. It is also flawed because if you accept this line of argument then it is a licence for any army chief to carry out a coup and take cover by stating that he was not alone in the venture.
In fact, many eminent lawyers and prominent civil society activist feel that trying the retired General under Article 6 will act as a deterrent for a future military take over and provide continuity to civilian rule and strengthen fledgling democracy.
The contrary school of thought is that prosecution of General Musharraf could well be very divisive and destabilizing which the nation could ill afford at a time when it is already confronted with an existential threat from militants and facing other serious challenges.
They also fear there could be unintended consequences in the event of a future military takeover — even if a highly remote possibility — where the dictator would be more authoritarian so that he sticks to power at any cost knowing that he will be held accountable for his actions.
In a way, it could be a replay of the Syrian situation where President Bashar Al-Assad is engaged in a fight to the last and going to any length to stay in office. But Pakistan cannot be compared to Syria. In Pakistan, democracy is taking roots, institutions are getting stronger and with the emergence of new centres of power, the army does not enjoy the same monopoly as it did in the past.
Setting a precedent of holding an ex-army chief accountable should be a major step towards restoring the requisite balance in civil-military relations that have remained skewed in favour of the military ever since the inception of Pakistan.
This has been neither good for the country nor the armed forces and is the genesis of many serious challenges that Pakistan faces today. Unless we are able to apply the laws of the land evenly and respect the sanctity of the constitution no progress is possible and the country will remain unstable and chaotic.
The unfolding of the Musharraf saga should not be viewed as the triumph of civilians over the khakis. In fact, if the legal process runs its normal course it will strengthen all state institutions in the longer term. Pakistan is in a state of transition and its strategic direction should be towards becoming a normal state and that can only happen by breaking the vicious cycle of alternating between military and civilian rulers and both meeting a terrible fate by being dismissed in disgrace. Hopefully, that era would be over once and for all.
A former Secretary Defence Production, the writer is now a political and defence analyst based in Islamabad