- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

A flurry of military promotions and transfers in Pakistan the first reshuffle of the army's top brass since Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power last October has prompted little international attention, partly as a result of ho-hum noises coming from Islamabad. Military spokesmen there say the reshuffle, including the transfer of the fundamentalist-inclined chief of staff to a field command in Lahore, is merely routine.

But sources close to Pakistan's military regime tell me the reshuffle marks the beginning of a cautious three-to-six month process that could well see Gen. Musharraf ending formal military rule over the troubled country, a move that Islamabad hopes will please international investors and lead to a resumption of Western aid and loans.

The well-placed sources say the general is aware that if he is to observe a court order to hold elections within two years, he needs to start shifting the country over to civilian rule. Gen. Musharraf is considering either restoring the national assembly he suspended when he ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharaf 11 months ago or introducing a caretaker coalition government. The latter is more likely.

Although hesitant about calling back the country's fractious politicians Gen. Musharraf blames them for the host of grave economic and political problems engulfing Pakistan the general appears ready to accept that his efforts to revive the country's moribund economy are failing. The politician most likely to benefit from the ending of military rule is Ijaz Ul-Haq, the son of Pakistan's last military strongman, the late Gen. Zia Ul-Haq. Gen. Musharraf has earmarked Mr. Ijaz as Pakistan's next prime minister.

The timing certainly is opportune. In New York in the margins of the U.N. Millennium Summit, U.S. diplomats urged a restoration of democracy on Gen. Musharraf. They hope a return to civilian rule will ease tensions on the subcontinent and provide the opportunity to coax Pakistan and India to sit down and resolve their differences over Kashmir.

According to the plan being discussed in clandestine talks with party leaders, including Mr. Ijaz and other leading lights in Mr. Sharaf's own Muslim League party, neither the jailed Mr. Sharaf himself nor his predecessor Benazir Bhutto, now in self-exile in London, will be allowed to run for office. The same for their families.

Further, Gen. Musharraf is likely to undo the 13th and 14th amendments to the country's Constitution and install himself as president. That would allow him, he argues, to ensure that his economic reform efforts are pursued and that the anti-corruption drive he initiated continues.

In early September, Mr. Ijaz traveled to Washington to brief the State Department on the possible developments. The Bush campaign has also been kept informed.

Mr. Ijaz, who was sympathetic to last October's putsch but urged a quick restoration of civilian rule, is responsible partly for Gen. Musharraf's readiness to consider transferring power from the military to the civilians, say political sources in Pakistan. On July 25, the general met with Mr. Ijaz in Islamabad. The meeting came after Mr. Ijaz's name topped a series of opinion polls secretly conducted by the generals in their search for a politician with the most popular backing.

During the meeting, described as "electrifying" by a participant, Mr. Ijaz argued strongly for a restoration of the Muslim League-dominated national assembly, despite Gen. Musharraf's gruff insistence at the start that he would not discuss restoring parliament. He told the general that he had learned one major lesson from his late father: never close your options.

Mr. Ijaz brought the general close to tears by referring to the legendary "thin red line" standoff between the army and civilians in 1977 in Lahore a face-off that contributed to his father's seizing of power after soldiers refused to fire on a crowd of demonstrators.

In an exchange laden with ironies, Mr. Ijaz told Gen. Musharraf that the line was there now between them. "I don't want to cross the thin red line and I hope you won't shoot me," he said. He warned Gen. Musharraf that his attempts to revive the economy were floundering and as a result the army would be blamed, leaving its reputation in tatters and Pakistan vulnerable to an Islamic fundamentalist takeover.

"If the army is seen to fail we have no where else to go there will be no other institution to fall back on," Mr. Ijaz reportedly told the general.

He praised Gen. Musharraf for some of the army's reforms, including its efforts to improve tax collection and battle the endemic corruption in the country's political class. But he emphasized that investor confidence would not be restored and that external economic assistance would not return until a civilian setup was reintroduced.

There are several obstacles remaining before an agreement can be reached between Gen. Musharraf and the politicians. A new devolution plan the general proposed recently has angered the politicians, who argue its strips away too much power from the national assembly. Further, Gen. Musharraf is not letting up in his anti-graft drive more than 100 parliamentarians are under investigation.

The Western response to all of this rustling in the undergrowth could be crucial. If Gen. Musharraf fears that a partial return to civilian rule will not be enough to satisfy Washington and lead to a lifting of the international isolation imposed on the country after the putsch, then it could well be harder for Mr. Ijaz and other Pakistani politicians to persuade the general to call back the civilians. A knee-jerk negative reaction by Washington could prolong military rule.

Jamie Dettmer is senior editor of Insight magazine

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