Pakistani military leaders are avoiding Musharraf issue

Say they won't interfere with impeachment

By Laura King
Los Angeles Times / August 17, 2008
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - This country's impeachment crisis once again has thrust the powerful Pakistani military into the political spotlight. But unlike in decades past, when any show of disarray within a civilian government practically guaranteed that a coup would follow, the army has stayed firmly on the sidelines.

Pakistan has spent half of its 61-year history under military rule, including eight under former general Pervez Musharraf, the civilian president who is under concerted attack by foes who want to drive him from office.

High-stakes talks continued yesterday aimed at reaching an accord under which Musharraf would agree to step down in exchange for various guarantees, including a promise that he would not face prosecution for acts while in office.

Pakistan's ruling coalition said yesterday that it has prepared impeachment charges against Musharraf focusing on violations of the constitution and misconduct, the Associated Press reported. The impeachment process could begin soon unless Musharraf steps down.

General Ashfaq Kayani, the man Musharraf handpicked to succeed him at the helm of the military late last year, has made it clear that he will not intervene to preserve the presidential tenure of his onetime superior officer and mentor.

"Let us rededicate ourselves to the military tradition of sacrifice," Kayani told an Independence Day gathering Thursday in a speech widely interpreted as closing the door to any army effort to stave off the impeachment process.

"The constitutional role of the army is what it is, a nonpolitical one," said Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier general-turned-analyst. "And the position of the army in all this has emerged with perfect clarity - they are saying, 'We are hands off.' "

If the army had lent him its support, Musharraf theoretically could have used his constitutional authority as president to dissolve the ruling coalition, which has declared that it would launch an impeachment drive against him. But Kayani and senior generals decided almost immediately against helping him preserve his power through military means, a step that would have been tantamount to a coup.

Ranking generals feared that propping up Musharraf, or once again ushering in military rule after only five months of civilian leadership, irreparably would damage the army's public standing, said analysts and a senior officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Although the military remains a highly respected institution, its reputation has suffered in recent years. Many ordinary Pakistanis were angry that senior generals acquiesced when Musharraf, then still the army chief, declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution and threw thousands of opponents into jail.

Now, army leaders appear determined to preserve an apolitical stance in the current crisis. "They haven't come this far in order to turn back," said Ikram Sehgal, a journalist and commentator who was once a senior officer.

As the crisis drags on, the army does have one powerful interest to protect. Analysts and news reports say senior generals have signaled to the civilian leadership that they have no wish to see their former chief humiliated - or, in the most drastic scenario, put on trial, imprisoned or even executed.

"That would cast a cloud over the entire institution. The army itself would be seen as being in the dock," Sehgal said. "Soldiers are taught to look up to the army chief as an example."

The president's camp, according to those involved in the talks, has demanded full legal immunity in exchange for his resignation.

If the negotiations aimed at securing Musharraf's resignation drag on, news reports have suggested that the civilian government might look to Kayani to deliver the news to Musharraf that his continued presence is untenable.

Sehgal said he thought that asking the army chief to give Musharraf a final push to resign would set a bad precedent for a civilian government that wants to preserve its independence.

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