Military Rule, Islamism, and Democracy in Pakistan

Vali Nasr. The Middle East Journal. Volume 58, Issue 2. Spring 2004.

Over the course of the past three decades two issues have been central to Pakistan’s political development: first, democratization and civil-military relations; and second, Islamization and Islamism’s relation to the state. The two issues have been separate and yet interdependent as they have unfolded in tandem to shape Pakistan’s politics. In the 1980s Islamism supported the military’s drive for power and suppression of democratic forces. Since 1988, the military, Islamist forces, and democratic parties have cooperated and competed with one another, jockeying for power and position in defining the rules of the game. The complexity of the interactions between the three actors during the decade of civilian rule (1988-99) precluded the institutionalization of democracy and facilitated the return of the military to power in 1999. The case of Pakistan is instructive in what it reveals about the changing role of Islamism in determining the balance of power between civil-military relations, and how democratization and Islamization—civil-military and Islamism-state relations—are influencing one another, deciding how Pakistani politics will unfold from this point forward.

The Islamist Factor In Pakistan’s Politics

Islamist forces have played an important role in Pakistan since the 1970s, providing the framework through which the country has defined its national interests and provided cadence between its domestic and international politics. Islam has also increased Pakistan’s regional power by opening new foreign policy possibilities before Islamabad, most notably in using Islamist activism to deal with developments in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The growing importance of Islam to Pakistan’s politics has been closely associated with mainstream Islamism, as defined, advocated, and led by parties such as the Jama’at-i Islami. The Jama’at was particularly successful in articulating a coherent Islamic ideology that effectively organized social action around the struggle to attain a Utopian Islamic state that would embody and implement the core values of Islam, and thus solve sociopolitical problems just as it attained the goal of development.

The Jama’at’s success in instituting many Islamist assumptions in popular political culture and framing key debates in an Islamist frame of reference eventually weakened the grip of secular politics in Pakistan, contributing first to the fall of the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69), and ultimately to the collapse of Zulfiqar AIi Bhutto’s experiment with socialism (1971-7V).

The Islamist vision became ensconced in the state during the Zia ul-H aq era (1977-88). The Zia period witnessed the Islamization of laws, public policy, and popular culture, producing a unique case of systematic propagation of Islamism from above. The Zia regime embraced the Islamist vision of state and society and used it not only to shore up state power by ending its war of attrition with Islamism, but also to expand its own powers domestically as well as regionally. The alliance provided legitimacy to military rule—which justified its suppression of democratic forces by claiming to be building an Islamic order. The alliance between Islamism and military rule produced stability, but was ultimately fraught with too many inconsistencies and divergent interests of its key actors to survive.

The end of the Zia period in 1988 also ended the formal alliance between Islamism and the state. With the return of democracy and the growing power of civilian politics the military and Islamists confronted diverse and divergent interests in a changing political context. Since 1988 Islamists, politicians, and generals have sought to manage relations between Islam and the state. The continuous negotiations, debates, and confrontations between them have changed the nature of both Islamism and Pakistani politics.

Islamism and Civilian Rule

The end of the Zia regime ushered in a period of transition in relations between the state and its allies among mainstream Islamists. The regime that was most closely associated with Islamization, and which had the most legitimacy to speak for and embody the growing Islamic identity in Pakistan gave place to a more secular democratic order that was initially led by the most secular element in Pakistan’s politics, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The passing of the Zia regime had not occurred through political defeat, but as a result of General Zia’s sudden death in a plane crash while he was still at the height of his power. As such, the Islamic coalition that led Pakistan in the 1980s retained notable power. The continuation of the war in Afghanistan, too, necessitated the fact that Pakistan remain true to its Islamic ideology.

As a result, the democratic period that followed the Zia years, 1988-99 was marked by struggles of power between the military and civilian politicians, and Islamist forces, and secular political institutions. The result was not only debilitating political crises that ultimately undermined democracy, but a more subtle competition for the soul of Pakistan. just as democratic forces sought to recalibrate Pakistan’s ideology, moving it away from Islamization to support development and modernization better, the coalition of military forces and Islamic parties sought to resist this trend by ever more tightly weaving Pakistan’s foreign policy and regional interests with Islam, and thus continuing to anchor domestic politics in the debate over Islamization.

Initially the military cobbled together an alliance between the principal pro-Zia forces, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Nawaz Sharif and Islamist parties, most notably Jama’at-i Islami and the two ulama parties, Jami’at-i Ulama-i Islam (Society of Ulama of Islam, juI) and Jami’at-i Ulama-i Pakistan (Society of Ulama of Pakistan, JUP). The alliance, Islami jumhoori Ittihad (Islamic Democratic Alliance, IJT) was charged with the task of challenging the PPP in the 1988 polls, to provide a voice for pro-Zia forces in the democratic process, and to use that process to stymie the PPP and Benazir Bhutto’s progress. In time, the military hoped the IJT would defeat the PPP and reproduce Zia’s Islamization order through the democratic process.

The IJT was initially successful. It was able to limit the PPP electoral success in the 1988 polls (and even win the elections to the Punjab Assembly and form the government in that province).” It was moreover effective in using the open political process to defend the gains of Islamization to date, and to make it difficult for the PPP to consolidate power and govern effectively.

Between 1988 and 1993 the struggle of power between the PPP and the IJT created a “crisis of governability” in Pakistan. Divided parliaments, facing changing allegiances of party members, economic crises, corruption, and growing acrimony between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto succumbed to paralysis. In the meantime, continued interference with the democratic process by the military and its ally—and senior advisor to Zia—Ghulam Ishaq Khan led to the dismissal of two governments, first the PPP’s and later the IJT’s. In the meantime, Pakistan’s economic growth slowed and popular disgruntlement with government became more vociferous.

The military’s continuous interference with the political process was successful in limiting the growth in the PPP’s power, and weakening the burgeoning democracy to the advantage of the military. This success was, however, at the cost of weakening of the IJT and ultimately breaking up the alliance between right-of-center civilian politicians, gathered in the PML, and Islamists—which had constituted the basis of the Zia regime, and later the IJT.

The democratic period opened new incentive opportunities for both the PML and Islamist forces. Freed of the confines of Zia’s military regime both political forces began to see the opportunity to dominate Pakistan’s politics to an extent that was not conceivable during the 1980s. The PML’s leader, Nawaz Sharif was the first to realize this and to distance his party from the military. As a result, the machinations that first brought his party into government in 1990 toppled him in 1993.

Jama’at-i Islami made the same realization. In the 1990-92 period, the party’s leader, Qazi Husayn Ahmad, actively distanced his party from the PML, and supported the military in dismissing Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1992. The Jama’at ran in the elections of 1993 on its own with Qazi Husayn posing as the alternative to both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

The military-PML-Jama’at alliance (the base of the IJT) was now reduced to the military and the Jama’at. The two also had a close working relationship in Afghanistan and Kashmir, where the training camps, recruitment efforts, and many of the jihadi activities were organized by the Jama’at. Moreover, Gulbidin Hikmatyar, Jama’at’s close ally was then also the military’s main client in Afghanistan.

Soon after 1993 the picture began to change. The results of the elections of 1993 suggested that Nawaz Sharif had a strong appeal to the Islamic vote bank. Whereas the PML did very well carrying the Islamic vote, the Jama’at performed poorly. The result suggested the emergence of a strong right-of-center party that would also represent the Islamic vote—rendering Islamist parties as irrelevant. This was the first time in the Muslim world that the democratic process had produced a brake to Islamism. The military was, however, less concerned with limiting Islamism and more with constricting democratic parties.

The military was shocked by these results. They had expected that the Jama’at would limit the PML’s electoral success, and that without Islamist allies Nawaz Sharif would fail to curry favor with the public. The result was a military-Islamist alliance that enjoyed little prominence in the political scene, and an increasingly independent right-of-center party that portended to take away control of Islamism from the military.

The military was also growing impatient with Hikmatyar’s inability to gain control of Kabul in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and increasingly saw the mainstream Islamism of Jama’at and its ilk as ineffectual in managing either the domestic or regional issues. The Islamist force that had empowered the Zia regime was now viewed as a spent force. The military thus began to look elsewhere. The change, as discussed earlier, came about in 1994 pursuant to change of events in Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban.

The rise of the Taliban introduced a new militant Islamist force to Pakistan. Pakistan’s military, which was unhappy with both Hikmatyar and the Jama’at, now turned to this new militancy to prop up its position in Pakistan’s politics and Afghanistan’s civil war.’5 The empowerment of the Taliban meant giving free reign to those forces in Pakistan that shared its ideology, and provided it with recruits and resources. The juI used its position to ensure a seamless linkage between the Taliban and domestic extremist forces. The military also concluded that just as the Taliban’s brand of Islamism had proven more productive on the battlefield in Afghanistan, extremism was likely to serve the military’s objective of controlling domestic politics more effectively. General Musharraf, in particular, proved adept at using extremist forces domestically and also in Kashmir to undermine civilian governments.

The PML government that came to power in 1997 sought to chart a new path for Pakistan to follow. The elections of 1997 were the first since 1988 to give a party a clear mandate to rule. The PML, led by Nawaz Sharif, won the majority of seats (63%) to the National Assembly. The elections produced the smallest contingent of Islamist representation in the Parliament on record (a sharp contrast with the elections of 2002). The results permitted Nawaz Sharif to vie for controlling Pakistan’s politics, defining the relationship between civilian rule and Islam, and creating a tenable relationship between Islam and the state—the first since the Zia period. To achieve this he openly fashioned the PML as simultaneously a modern democratic party that was committed to the development of Pakistan, and the champion of the cause of Islamization.

In effect, he positioned the PML as an “Islamic democratic party” similar to European Christian Democratic parties. Sharif, who was an industrialist from Punjab, was popular and was known to be a pious Muslim. he used his image to argue that he would deliver on the demands of Islamization just as he would pursue development. The PML was to form a stable right-of-center government that would not be beholden to Islamist parties and would be able to govern Pakistan with a strong claim to represent popular and national religious aspirations.

Sharif modeled the PML after Malaysia’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO). That party had in the 1980s successfully co-opted Islamic forces and had advocated both Islamization and capitalist development. As a senior PML leader, Mushahid Husayn put it “Nawaz Sharif will be both the [Necmettin] Erbakan [leader of Turkey’s Islamist Refah Party] and Mahathir [Mohamed of Malaysia] of Pakistan.” The PML’s claim was bolstered by the fact that it had taken over seats that were once held by Islamist parties and had defeated those Islamist candidates that had participated in the elections. It argued that it could better serve the interests of the Islamic vote bank.

The military under General Pervez Musharraf (who became army chief in 1998) viewed Nawaz Sharif’s gambit as a threat. Had Nawaz Sharif succeeded in establishing a viable right-of-center and Islamist coalition he would have dominated the middle in Pakistan; moreover, then it would have been a democratic party rather than the military that would have defined and controlled the nexus between Islam and the state.

The military under General Musharraf turned to extremist forces to undermine Sharif. Throughout 1998-99 sectarian violence raged across Pakistan, and militant activism in Kashmir grew in intensity. There were two attempts on Nawaz Sharif’s life by militant groups with ties to the military in the run up to the coup of 1999. By encouraging increasing radicalization of the Islamist discourse, and supporting the extremist forces, the military sought to destabilize the relations between the PML and its constituency, and more generally radicalize Islamism to the extent that a viable center-right coalition would not be feasible. The military also used extremist forces in Kashmir to undermine Sharif, most notably in Kargil in 1999, when an incursion by militants into Indian-held Kashmir brought the two countries to the brink of war, and eventually greatly weakened Nawaz Sharif.

Islam and the State Under Musharraf

The growing tensions between the military and the PML contributed to the civilian government’s unpopularity, precipitated a crisis of governability—aggravating other problems, notably economic stagnation and growing corruption—and eroded Sharif’s authority, and eventually led to the military coup of 1999. The military regime that came into power initially purported to revamp Pakistan’s politics. Musharraf is a secular general, known for his drinking and fondness for gambling. Some of his first pictures after the coup were with his dogs, and his speeches were then peppered with terminologies such as “doubling down” and “tripling down” (drawn from blackjack). His persona could not have been more different from that of Zia. he had spent some of his youth in Turkey, and had an admiration for Kemal Ataturk, and also looks positively on the role that the military plays in Turkey’s politics—which is clearly at odds with how the military has seen its own role in Pakistan. The combination of Kemalism and military rule differs greatly from Zia’s formula of combining Islamism with military rule. It appeared at face value that Musharraf’s response to the gradual melting away of the Zia alliance of military-PML-Islamism was to anchor martial rule in a completely different ideological foundation.

Musharraf sought to move beyond Zia’s model to look to the Ayub Khan era. His vision was one of allying the military with the modern middle classes and “liberal” Muslims, and focusing Pakistan on economic development. This approach was also viewed as necessary after the events of September 11, 2001, changed the international climate. Having realized that the military had lost the control of mainstream Islamism to the PML, Musharraf saw no point in continuing to anchor the military’s strategy in a political and ideological position over which it could not have direct control. The military would continue to use extremist forces, but extremism was merely a tactical and strategic tool akin to a weapons system. It did not provide the military with ideological legitimacy. Musharraf therefore saw no contradiction between a secular military cultivating and using Islamic militancy.

Musharraf also purged the military of pro-Islamist generals—confirming the military’s new orientation. The military would be committed to its strategic vision rather than any ideology. Musharraf was successful in loosening the grip of Islamists over the public sphere, reducing their ability to enforce morality on the public or to use “Qur’an-thumping” to set the tone for public debates. The new regime even encouraged more laxity in popular culture. Political Islam became a less dominant force in the public arena especially in Punjab and Sind. Islamic observance did not decline, but compulsion in religious observance was tempered.

The events of September 11 had a momentous impact on Pakistan. General Musharraf and the military decided to support the US war against the Taliban and also the hunt for al-Qa’ida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan corridor. This meant clamping down on the militant jihadi groups that the military had used as strategic assets to control Afghanistan and manage the conflict in Kashmir. It also meant severing the military’s last remaining overt tie with Islamism. That the military leadership that was undertaking this move was secular in outlook, and was doing so in alliance with the US was (and continues to be) politically problematic. However, the military understood that the alternative could be even more costly to its interests. External factors thus forced a break with militancy. The Pakistan military now became closely allied with the US and openly at odds with the Islamist base of power in Pakistan.

The military was not able to compensate for the estrangement of Islamists by appealing to the modern middle classes, because they too were opposed to US policies, and more importantly, objected to martial rule—even in the name of moderation and economic development.

Elections of 2002

The dilemmas facing the Musharraf regime came to the fore in the national elections of 2002. The PML and PPP were greatly disadvantaged in these elections. Their leaders were barred from the country and the parties were broken into different factions by the military. In addition, there were many irregularities in polling stations putting into question some of the results. More importantly, in the name of improving the quality of parliamentary representatives the military decreed that those getting into the Parliament must hold higher education degrees—eliminating many political veterans from the race—and that certificates issued by madrasahs (ijazahs) would be accepted as higher education degrees. These measures disadvantaged the PPP and PML and conversely benefited Islamist parties.

The Islamist parties (JUI, Jama’at, JUP as well as smaller ulama and Shi’i parties) formed an electoral alliance: Mutahhidah Majlis Amal (United Action Front, MMA). The alliance reflected the Islamic parties’ frustration with the Musharraf regime, with the fall of the Taliban, and the war on terror. It also reflected the fact that with the PML and PPP under pressure, Islamic parties now had the opportunity to reverse the losses they had suffered during the PML’s rise to prominence in the 1993-99 period. The MMA also had the tacit support of the military—which is popularly believed to have helped put together the MMA. General Musharraf viewed the PML and PPP as the main obstacles before the military’s project of controlling Pakistan’s politics. He was comparatively less concerned with Islamic parties, which he believed the military could always manipulate.

In addition, a strong MMA would help the General manage Washington’s expectations by presenting it with a zero sum choice between the military or the mullahs. At any rate the military expected the MMA to be fraught with internal conflict and hence easy to divide and rule. In essence, the secularizing General was back to cobbling together some form of military-Islamist alliance, except that unlike the Zia period this alliance was surreptitious, and was characterized by mutual distrust between the two sides. Moreover, unlike the 1980s, Islamic parties no longer looked to an alliance with the military as the only way in which their ambitions for power could be realized. MMA leaders such as Jama’at’s Qazi Husayn Ahmad believed that the MMA could fill in the PML’s shoes and that Islamist interests now lay in the political process.

The MMA was designed as a strong electoral alliance between the two most important Islamist forces in Pakistan—the Deobandi JUI and Jama’at-i Islami—to consolidate the hold over Islamic politics under an Islamist force. Deobandis are the largest and most influential school of ulama in Pakistan. They are products of the educational system that was associated with the nineteenth century reformist movement that was centered in the seminary of Deoband in Northern India. Deobandis enjoy broad following across Pakistan, and given the numbers of their madrasahs, students, graduates-extending from preachers to ulama-they are an important religious and political force in the country. Although the JUL represents the political muscle of the MMA (with largest parliamentary representation and control of the NWFP Assembly) the alliance’s organizational design and political strategy are largely the brainchild of Jama’at’s chief, Qazi Husayn Ahmad. Qazi conceived of the MMA as the means to use the tug-of-war between the military, the PML, and the PPP to Islamist parties’ advantage. He believed that the MMA would provide Islamists with the opportunity to wrest control of Islamism from lay/secular forces or institutions the military or the PML.

Qazi believes that the JUI and the Jama’at have the potential to create a powerful mainstream political force. The JUI has a strong representation in rural and tribal areas; it is a main player in Pathan politics; and still has strong resources among militant forces. The Jama’at by contrast has notable street power in urban Pakistan, and has the political and administrative know-how to make the MMA a credible political force. The goal is for the MMA to become the dominant right-of center party in Pakistan—what the PML was before the 1999 coup. It is for this reason that the MMA has distanced itself from Jihadi forces. Sipah Sahabah Pakistan (SSP), the largest of the sectarian forces that was banned after September 11 for its ties to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida did not join the MMA, and its leader, A’zam Tariq, remained General Musharraf’s most prominent Islamist ally until his assassination in October 2003. MMA Exective secretary Mawlana Fazlur Rahman openly distanced the MMA from jihadi forces in Kashmir and the resurgent Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan in official trips to Delhi and Kabul in 2003. In Delhi, Rahman went as far as to endorse a cease fire in Kashmir. As one senior Jama’at-i Islami leader noted to this author, “the only jihadi force in Pakistan is the army.” Similarly, outside of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)—where there is strong demand for Islamization—the MMA’s political agenda has shied away from overt talk of Islamization and Shariat (Shari’a) bills, and instead focused on good governance and democracy. The MMA has become a de facto defender of democracy before the military regime, and also a serious contender for providing the kind of clean and transparent government that General Musharraf promised Pakistan after the coup. Both have provided it with a broader base of support.

The alliance between Jama’at and the JUI is also religiously significant. The MMA is the coming together of erstwhile rivals: lay Islamists and ulama. However, political interest has for now overridden ideological differences. The Pathan factor has also been important in making the alliance possible. The MMA’s popularity reflects the frustrations of Pathans with developments in Afghanistan. The ties between the constituent parties of the MMA have drawn a great deal on the common Pathan nationalist platform—what they agree on as opposed to Islamic doctrines where their views may diverge. It is important to note that of the founding leaders of the six parties that constitute the MMA, with the exception of the late Mawlana Shah Ahmad Noorani of JUP, all were Pathans.

In 1999, Islamist parties in Pakistan also sought protection in numbers, especially the JUI whose rank and file had been tied to the Taliban. The military’s “betrayal” of the Taliban convinced the JUI that its future rested in a larger Islamist alliance. In fact, the closer General Musharraf got to Washington, the more the JUI feared a “Taliban fate,” and the more it sought refuge in a larger Islamic alliance.

The elections of 2002 produced a spectacular result for the MMA, better than Islamic parties had achieved in any of the previous elections. In national elections the MMA got only 3.19 million votes or 11% of the total (in the NWFP, the MMA won 82% of seats in the National Assembly), finishing fourth in the tally of popular vote, after the PPP (with 7.39 million votes), the PML(Q) (a pro-Musharraf faction of PML created by the military with 7.33 million votes), and the PML(N) (proNawaz Sharif PML with 3.32 million votes). The numbers led General Musharraf to continue to view the PML and PPP as the main threats to the military’s position.

In provincial elections; the MMA too did well (winning 51 of 101 seats to the NWFP Assembly—where it formed the government—and 14 of 51 to the Baluchistan Assembly). However, in Punjab the MMA won only eight out of 297 Provincial Assembly seats, and in Sind eleven out of 130—forming the city government in Karachi. One important outcome of the elections is that Punjab and Sind voted very differently from the NWFP and Baluchistan. To be more precise, Pathans voted overwhelmingly for Islamism and the MMA, and the rest of Pakistan shied away from the MMA. This is the first time since the1970s and the Afghan war that there has been such a political divide between Pathans and Punjabis.

The results also indicated the extent to which Pathan politics has become Islamized—a “Talibanization” of Pathan politics in Pakistan. Talibanization in Afghanistan meant militant and jihadi activisms. It also meant Islamization of Pathan nationalism. This trend began with the Afghan jihad and was later closely associated with the JUI—the Deobandi ulama party that has a strong following in the NWFP and Pathans in Baluchistan, and whose madrasahs were important to the rise of the Taliban. However, the MMA today is clearly not interested in militancy. It has concluded that the fall of the Taliban shows that jihadi activism will not serve Islamist and Deobandi interests. Rather, the future of Islamism and Deobandi politics lies in mainstream electoral politics.

Hence, it is the second meaning of Talibanization—Islamization of Pathan nationalism—that is what is at work in Pakistan. The rise of the MMA suggests that Deobandis have completed their domination of Pathan politics and nationalism in Pakistan in the manner that the Taliban had done in Afghanistan. It took direct US military action to free Pathan politics in Afghanistan of the Taliban—and still the US has not managed to end the Taliban’s control of Pathan nationalism in that country. The military may try to dismantle the MM A’s control of the NWFP, but it cannot easily untangle Deobandis from Pathan politics. Pathan politics is now essentially Deobandi.

The Deobandi domination of Pathan politics has actually expanded after the fall of the Taliban. Until then Deobandis competed with the PML for control of Pathan politics in Pakistan. The PML was able to remain relevant in mainstream Pathan politics. The demise of the PML opened the door for Deobandis to move beyond madrasahs and jihadi groups to fill quickly the resultant vacuum. Consequently, the Deobandization—or “Talibanization” of Pathan politics in Pakistan started in earnest after 1999, and became more prominent with the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and rise of the MMA. The Deobandi ascendancy in the NWFP, Baluchistan, and Afghanistan has in effect created an Lslamist-Pathan belt stretching from Kandahar to Quetta and Peshawar.

The Military and the MMA after the Elections

Since October 2002 two developments have been notable; first, that the MMA has retained its cohesion and has proved resilient in the face of the military’s efforts to break it up. Second, that General Musharraf has faced stiff resistance to his efforts to revamp the Constitution to sanction military rule. The General has been criticized for seeking to formalize military involvement in politics, most notably for serving as both the President and Army Chief. The resistance to Musharraf has been led by the rump of the PML and PPP, but also by the MMA.

The MMA has benefited from Musharraf’s rule. The General undermined the PML and PPP to the MMA’s advantage, and continues to be preoccupied with rooting out support for those parties. However, regardless of the positive returns of the Musharraf regime for the MMA the alliance is eager to maximize its political interests and avoid becoming a tool of the military. As a result, the MMA led the charge in the Parliament against Musharraf’s tampering with the Constitution, as well as his support for the US in the war on terror.

Jama’at’s leader, Qazi Husayn, was at the forefront of opposition to the Legal Framework Order—the constitutional changes that General Musharraf has proposed to legitimize the military’s control of the state- demanding that he “take-off his uniform” if he wishes to remain President. In August 2003 the MMA and JUI leader, Mawlana Sami’ ul-Haq led some 200 ulama in signing a fatwa that declared sending of troops to Iraq to be haram, and forbidding any member of the ulama from performing funeral prayers for Pakistani soldiers that are killed there. More recently, the MMA has organized strikes and demonstrations in defense of Dr. Abdul-Qadeer Khan (father of Pakistan’s nuclear program). Since the October 2002 elections the MMA has gained strength in the NWFP by championing Pathan nationalism and in the center by standing up to the military.

The MMA poses a challenge to the Musharraf regime. Ideologically, Musharraf seeks to institute a moderate and apolitical Islam in Pakistan—what he refers to as “Jinnah’s Islam”. However, he is at loggerheads with secular political parties that have traditionally represented that approach to Islam. The General continues to view the PML and PPP as the greater threats to his regime. The confrontation with those parties has alienated the moderate Islamic vote and the modern middle classes from the military regime.

That outcome in effect leaves the MMA as the only viable civilian partner for the military. In fact, it is said that General Musharraf favors the MMA as the “Military-Mullah Alliance.” The formal agreement with the MMA in effect created a modus vivendi between it and the military. In the wake of the agreement, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML remain the only overtly anti-Musharraf forces. As the principal chasm in Pakistan’s politics becomes the one between the generals and civilian politicians of the PPP and PML rather than between the military and Islamists, Musharraf is compelled to abandon his secularist pretense and also hand over substantial powers to the MMA.

The issue is important in understanding where Islam fits in Pakistan’s politics. In the international arena the military has been the chief sponsor of jihadi activism. It has viewed militancy as a strategic weapon to maximize foreign policy interests. Although international pressure, and the string of attempts on General Musharraf’s life in December 2003, have forced the military to abandon jihadi activism and reign in militant organizations, the military’s thinking on its foreign policy imperatives and the value of jihadi activism to realize it has not changed.

In the domestic arena, Islamism continues to be an important force. However, it has been able to project greater power since 1999 only because democratic forces have been undermined by the military. The military has not been the bulwark against Islamism, but its liberator from its nemesis, the PML. It is through the military’s assault on the political process, and as an intended or unintended consequence of the struggle for power between the military and democratic forces, that Islamism has gained ground. Its growth in power in the current form feeds on the instability of the political process. The fundamental issue in Pakistan’s politics remains civil-military relations and not the stand-off between Islamism and the state. In fact, growing tensions between the generals and civilian politicians has brought the military closer to Islamists.

The relationship between Islamists and the military is, however, fraught with tensions. First, Islamist forces would like to avoid new elections and keep the civilian parties out of the political process, but do not wish to get too close to the Musharraf government. The MMA has already faced a decline in its popularity since it made an agreement with General Musharraf over his proposed Legal Framework Order-constitutional changes that legitimate military rule, and allow the general to serve as both army chief and president. More important, the military is finding it difficult to maintain its modus vivendi with Islamist forces in the face of developments in Afghanistan and the international pressure on Islamabad over the war on terror, instability in southern Afghanistan, and the nuclear proliferation issue. During the Zia period the alliance between the military and Islamists was anchored in a shared Islamic nationalist ideology. General Musharraf’s regime is not Islamic, and the aforementioned issues are also sapping it of its nationalist pretensions. Since 2001, but increasingly so in the past few months, Genaral Musharraf has found himself at odds with the Islamic nationalist sentiment that the MMA, its intended civilian partner, is firmly rooted in. This makes General Musharraf’s strategy for managing the domestic political scene more tenuous.

The new constitution in Afghanistan is unpopular in Pakistan—and especially in the MMA’s base of support among the Pathans in the NWFP and Baluchistan. The constitution concentrates power in Kabul under a government that is viewed as both pro-India and biased against Pathans. The MMA has been critical of developments in Afghanistan and is likely to break openly with General Musharraf over Islamabad’s Afghan policy if Pathan unhappiness in Afghanistan precipitates conflict in that country and if that unhappiness spills over into Pakistan.

Similarly, the MMA has refused to support General Musharraf in his attempts to deal with the nuclear proliferation scandal of February 2004, surrounding the sale of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea by Dr. Abdul-Qadeer Khan’s laboratory. The MMA has spearheaded criticisms of the government’s handling of this issue in the Parliament, and has orchestrated demonstrations in the streets. Qazi Husayn has called on General Musharraf to resign and to refer the matter to the Parliament for consideration. The nuclear proliferation issue goes to the heart of the Musharraf government’s dilemma of balancing its ties with Washington with its dependence on Islamist forces. The public censure of Dr. Khan has been depicted by the MMA as surrendering to Washington on an issue that is critical to national security. That the sale of nuclear technology to Iran and Libya were portrayed by some quarters as General Mirza Aslam Beig’s (the fiercely nationalist army chief in the late 1980s) strategy to create a Muslim nuclear bloc to stand up to the West has made Dr. Khan more of a hero than a villain.

The MMA’s position on both the Afghanistan and the nuclear proliferation issues are in tune with the nationalist sentiment in Pakistan, which resonates with many in the military. The assassination attempts on General Musharraf in December 2003 were remarkable in their degree of sophistication and access to critical intelligence, enough to suggest complicity on the part of elements within the military and other security apparatuses. Notably, the Christmas Day attempt on Musharraf’s life came three days after it was revealed that Dr. Khan would be questioned by the authorities for the activities of his laboratory.

The pressures on the Pakistan military to maintain its unity in the face of domestic political challenges and international pressures is considerable. General Musharraf’s foreign policy enjoys little support domestically at a time when the military’s political status compels it to be sensitive to public opinion. The challenge facing General Musharraf is how to avoid isolation in the domestic political arena while fulfilling the international demands on the Pakistan state. With little ideological leverage with which to manage the domestic political scene—and its most obstreperous elements—the General faces an uphill battle. How General Musharraf addresses this problem will be decisive not only for his regime, but also for the future of Pakistan.

As pressures mount, the military—Pakistan’s single most important political actor—will not likely remain politically active without fuelling Islamism. The notion of a secularizing military has become a contradiction in terms. As the military faces stiff resistance to its authority, it is likely that it will give in to the MMA, returning to the framework of relations that governed military-Islamist relations in the 1980s. However, this time, the military lacks an ideological commitment to Islamism, and the MMA will not be content with playing a secondary role in the alliance. The balances of ideology and power are very different, although the need for cooperation remains the same. This may well present Islamists with the first serious opportunity to emerge as viable mainstream political actors.