Musharraf is contemplating imposing martial law in Pakistan. It might not help him much
It shouldn’t be hard to justify a declaration of martial law in Pakistan. Balochistan province is in the middle of a raging insurgency, many of the tribal areas and parts of NWFP are in Taliban hands and the long-standing sectarian war in Gilgit and Hunza has grown worse. Even before Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry began to draw unprecedented popular support at public rallies across the country, these conflicts provided reasonable grounds for the declaration martial law. Yet until the judge’s triumphant journey to Lahore rattled him like never before, Gen Musharraf reckoned that brutal repression (in the case of Balochistan and Gilgit) or craven submission (in FATA and NWFP) behind the curtain of a media blackout would suffice to keep him in power.
But now that the sacking of the chief justice has snowballed into a popular movement threatening Musharraf’s political survival, and attempted media blackouts proving to be difficult or futile, it is to be expected that the regime will contemplate imposing an emergency. However, it can’t justify this on the account of the situation in Balochistan, Gilgit or the tribal areas without shooting itself in the foot. Moreover, Musharraf will need a story that can be sold to Western audiences—brutally putting down a people power movement won’t help his cause at all.
Since justifying an emergency on account of the real crises is not feasible, the Musharraf regime will need engineered ones. That matter about Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa remains unresolved and its attempted resolution can provide Musharraf the cover—both domestic and international—he needs. The public rallies in support of the Chief Justice could be made to turn violent, providing the government a pretext to ban them in the interest of public order. And then there is the curious timing of the equally curious hunt for ‘missing’ radioactive materials, likely to send a shiver down many a spine whose worst fear is that of a dirty bomb exploding in a Western metropolis.
Many Pakistani commentators believe that the welcome Chief Justice Chaudhry received in Lahore indicates the beginning of the end for Gen Musharraf. If so, it is hard to see how imposing an emergency will help.
Musharraf can salvage some goodwill if he goes quietly. Yet, a dictator concerned with his own survival is likely to end up making more missteps.
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