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Quitting army a risky proposition for Musharraf

The military is the career soldier's power base, and he is expected to delay giving up his uniform as long he can.

November 15, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN — On any given day during the last eight years, President Pervez Musharraf was most likely to be found not at the ornate presidential compound in the capital, but here in this garrison city: at his desk at army headquarters, clad in familiar camouflage fatigues, greeted everywhere with the crisp salutes and studied deference accorded a four-star general.

Now, a farewell to arms appears inevitable, if not imminent.

Under a timetable he pledged to before he put his country under de facto martial law, the general was supposed to have stepped down as military chief today, before being sworn in for a new presidential term. Despite enormous domestic and international pressure, Musharraf will almost certainly not do so.

In recent days, the general has promised repeatedly to shed his uniform as soon as possible but has been elusive about a specific date. In the latest such pledge, he told the Associated Press on Wednesday that it probably would happen by the end of the month.

For his patrons in the West, Musharraf's relinquishing of his military role has become a non-negotiable necessity, a crucial prelude to the easing of the harsh emergency measures that were put into effect Nov. 3. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte will press the case in a visit to Islamabad on Friday.

Other key Western allies have taken a harder line. The British Commonwealth nations are threatening to suspend Pakistan's membership unless Musharraf quits the army and lifts his emergency decree by Nov. 22.

Although the Bush administration says it believes the Pakistani leader's promise to give up his army post as soon as possible, opposition leaders believe he will find one pretext after another to delay.

Many opposition activists believe that Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, will instead try to ease Western pressure by rolling back some provisions of emergency rule. Under the decree, the constitution is suspended, independent television channels have been knocked off the air and thousands of government critics have been jailed.

Army life, with its power and perquisites, its unvarying attention to rank and ritual, has for decades been the 64-year-old leader's milieu. The Pakistani military -- the world's seventh-largest fighting force, equipped with nuclear weaponry and with nearly a million men under arms -- is the wellspring of Musharraf's authority.

His rule has been in line with Pakistani tradition: The country has spent more than half its 60-year history under military rule.

Musharraf calls the uniform his second skin. Losing it will almost certainly diminish his power, bringing uncertainty to his place in public life.

In the jittery first days of the emergency decree, there was frenzied speculation about army loyalties. Though quickly discounted, there were persistent rumors of a possible counter-coup by the general's generals. At meetings with Western counterparts, the demeanor of Musharraf's subordinates was carefully scrutinized for signs of dissent in the ranks.

"The army is not in isolation; it is very reflective of sentiments of society," said Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst and former army officer who once served with Musharraf. "So like the rest of the nation, they are worried about what is happening. But it's a professional army, and they rally around their chief."

Although Musharraf faces no overt challenge from within the military, analysts said retaining the support of the army could quickly become a full-time job. In the meantime, as long as he remains army chief, pressing political problems will divert him from the military's mission.

Violence is sweeping the country's northwest region bordering Afghanistan, not only in insurgent-dominated tribal areas of Waziristan but in swaths of the North-West Frontier Province that are supposed to be under government control.

Supplanting beleaguered paramilitary troops, the army has now been handed the lead role in fighting in Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, where forces loyal to a pro-Taliban cleric have seized several towns, terrorized locals and captured dozens of government troops.

"What's happening up there is the big concern, and we've seen a real lack of attention being paid to it," said a Western military official in Islamabad.

So far, demonstrations against the emergency decree have been limited in size, and the task of putting down protests and rounding up opposition leaders has fallen to police and paramilitary troops.

But analysts say that if unrest burgeoned to the point that the army was called in, troop morale would suffer, public respect for the military as an institution would plummet and the prospect of mutiny in the ranks would grow.

"My readout is that the patience of the military could wear thin if some of the hard-core loyalists feel that they or their interests are being threatened," said Alexander Neill, head of the Asia security program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

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