Grim farewell to the military

Musharraf prepares to step down as chief of Pakistan's army to retain post of president

November 28, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Stern-faced and stiff-backed, his chest bedecked with medals, President Pervez Musharraf bade a ceremonial farewell to his troops yesterday, a final prelude to today's formal relinquishing of the military role that long has defined him as Pakistan's leader.

Under pressure from international backers and domestic foes, Musharraf was poised, after many delays, to give up the army general's post from which he derived much of his near-absolute authority after he seized political power in a 1999 coup.

Yet Musharraf still will wield extraordinary powers, even once he takes the oath of office as a civilian president tomorrow, as he has vowed to do. Still, it represents a humbling moment for a leader who until now, despite a popular uprising against him, has refused to accept curbs on his rule.

"All this is significant, because it signals his serious understanding of what a predicament he's in," said Patrick Cronin, a South Asia analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "It shows that if he wants to cling to power, he has to take actions he hasn't been willing to take in the past."

Even without his uniform, the emergency provisions that Musharraf put in place Nov. 3 continue to give him sweeping powers to muzzle dissent, though recent days have seen an easing of the harsh measures with which he ushered in de-facto martial law.

Upon declaring emergency rule, the general suspended the constitution, imposed curbs on the news media, arrested thousands of opponents and effectively dismantled the independent judiciary.

Musharraf's move to give up his post as military chief could help defuse political tensions in Pakistan, which is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But his decision to give up military leadership leaves unanswered, for the moment, crucial questions about his future dealings with opposition politicians and how and whether the country will move toward civilian rule.

Musharraf, 64, refused to leave the army until his new incarnation as a civilian leader was assured. Pakistan's Supreme Court, now made up of loyalists who were installed under emergency rule, threw out last week the remaining legal challenges to his re-election to a new five-year term as president.

Musharraf has been head of the army since 1998, a year before he ousted then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now a newly minted opposition leader, in a coup. He later became president, a dual role that was challenged in earnest this year by pro-democracy activists angry over his attempt to fire independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

From March onward, lawyers took to the streets in demonstrations that eventually coalesced in a nationwide campaign for the general to step down not only as military leader but as president.

While finally acquiescing on the question of the uniform he called his "second skin," the Pakistani leader said he would lift emergency rule when he saw fit.

His designated successor, deputy army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, is a longtime loyalist. Kiani is thought to harbor little political ambition of his own.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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