General Pervez Musharraf is poised to rule Pakistan for another five years. Not because he wants to, he says, but because no one but he can reform Pakistan.
General Musharraf is the third Pakistani general in fifty years to seize power proclaiming a self-anointed reform agenda. Each time America and its allies nodded in agreement. But Musharraf is no Gorbachev, nor is he a Kamal Ataturk. All of his attempts at reform arose under international pressure. Feeble at best, Musharraf's reforms invariably avoid the type of structural changes Pakistan needs to break out of its recurring, worsening crisis.
Given General Musharraf's diminishing domestic popularity some here worry about his survival But a real threat "from the street" seems impossible. Pakistan's public, disillusioned by Benazir Bhutto's and Nawaz Sharif's kleptocratic regimes, is far too wretched and ambivalent to rise up.
Even heavily armed militant groups are no match for the state's firepower. While intrigues and coups are always possible, Musharraf's survival is likely because he won't touch the enormous powers and privileges of the institution he heads: the Pakistani military.
All countries have armies, but in Pakistan things are reversed. Here it is the army that has a country. Defence expenditures consume between one-third and one-half of the national budget.
Over the decades, senior military officers have been transformed into powerful landlords through grants of choice agricultural lands and real estate. Many, if not most, public corporations are headed by retired officers. This garrison economy is proving increasingly unsustainable as Pakistan's poor multiply and the economy falters.
While the army has always been the most powerful political force in Pakistan, it has undergone important changes over the decades. The army's British colonial traditions were slowly Americanized during the Cold War. With his coup of 1977, General Zia ul Haq brought a messianic zeal to redefine Pakistan as an Islamic state run by Sharia (Islamic Law) and Islamicize its institutions.
"Islam, Pakistan, Jihad" became emblazoned on banners at Pakistani Army recruitment centers, beards proliferated, promotions went with piety, and few could be seen to miss Friday prayers. A new ethos was created; this was to be an army not just for Pakistan, but for the greater glory of Islam. It was, after all, a different historical epoch. The global jihad industry, financed by the US and Saudi Arabia, welcomed it.
But today, the Pakistan Army's jihad philosophy lies buried under the rubble of the World Trade Centre. When faced by a US bent upon bloody vengeance, an acute institutional sense of survival sent the military establishment scurrying to join the US-led coalition and take up arms against its former creation, the Taliban and their Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the pious).
It was straightforward betrayal, resisted only by a few senior officers with an Islamic bent. They were quickly rendered irrelevant. General Musharraf knew the alternative. In all likelihood the Americans would "have done an Iraq on Pakistan", as one highly placed member of the foreign ministry conceded to me in the week after September 11th. He was probably right.
Internal contradictions are now exposed as the army's bloody encounters with Al-Qaida become more frequent, casualties mount, and hostile tribal reaction to joint US/Pakistani search-and-destroy operations on the western border increases. Officers and men are asking: why?
To die in Kashmir officially qualifies a soldier or officer as a "shaheed" (martyr). But is fighting America's war a jihad, and are soldiers slain by Al-Qaida or other former allies also martyrs? Since official certification of martyrdom is tied to land-grants and compensation to families, this question carries an real material significance.
Inevitably the anger - visible or otherwise - at having to fight America's war against Al-Qaida and the Taliban focuses on Musharraf, a man who received high praise from the United Jihad Council after secret incursions and battles fought against India around Kargil in Kashmir two years ago. Musharraf's successful coup was warmly welcomed by right-wing religious groups in Pakistan. But today he lives in mortal danger, aware that he is silently stalked by the forces that once sided with him. Ironically, fate has yoked his survival to George W. Bush, who could not recall the name of this Pakistani leader at the time of the US presidential elections.
Seeking to make permanent his coup, Musharraf has instituted amendments to Pakistan's constitution. A new National Security Council would formalize the army's political domination of Pakistani society, with the armed forces chiefs having the power to sack the Prime Minister and dismiss an elected Parliament. All this in the name of reform.
But if Pakistan is to overcome its double challenge of escaping the Bonapartism of its army and winning the war against jihadists, the army - not just society - must be reformed. The needs are clear: first, the military must accept that the social and economic needs of Pakistan's people come first and must re-size itself to live within Pakistan's means. Second, the army must focus upon defending frontiers while realizing that Kashmir can only have a political solution, not a military one. To achieve these ends, Pakistan will need all the help it can get.