Pakistan's former dictator returned home to what he thought would be a hero's welcome. Instead, a court ordered his arrest -- and put the military in an awkward spot.
In early 1999, unbeknownst to Pakistan's prime minister, then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered a covert incursion into the Kargil area of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Musharraf's aim was to sever India's links between the western and eastern portions of the disputed territory and force the international community to help resolve a 50-year conflict it conveniently ignored.
The Kargil operation was classic Musharraf: daring, but ill-thought out. Pakistan's cover story was that the raiders were Kashmiri freedom fighters, not regular Pakistani troops. The need for deniability meant that Pakistan could not meaningfully provide air support to its own troops, who claimed the heights of Kargil and fought valiantly, but were left stranded after India used its air power to cut off their supply routes. By summer, India and Pakistan were at war and Nawaz Sharif, the elected prime minister, had rushed to Washington to ask President Bill Clinton to get India to deescalate. And by October, Musharraf would overthrow Sharif.
Today, General Musharraf is now Mr. Musharraf, and he's once again gotten himself into trouble. On Thursday morning, he fled from the Islamabad High Court, which had denied his plea for bail after a lower court ordered his arrest in a treason case against him, and retreated to his villa in the Islamabad suburb of Chak Shahzad, hoping to avoid criminal prosecution. And on Friday, he was arrested by Islamabad police. He's being detained in a local police facility and it's unclear whether he will be released in the coming days. A bipartisan resolution passed today in Pakistan's Senate opposed any special treatment for the former dictator and called for him to be tried for treason. Like the Kargil affair, this is a mess entirely of Musharraf's own making, and one that puts the army as well as other power brokers in an uncomfortable position during a fragile political transition.
Musharraf had returned to Pakistan in late March after four years in self-imposed exile to take part in the country's general elections scheduled for May. Like countless other exiles, Musharraf claimed that he had come back because his country needs him. But the reality is that few -- aside from a couple of lawyers who profit from the ex-general's numerous legal challenges -- clamored for his return. Since his resignation from the presidency in 2008, Pakistan has grown beyond Musharraf. The party he created soon after overthrowing Sharif in 1999, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, no longer mentions his name. It is allied with his replacement, President Asif Ali Zardari. Sharif, Musharraf's nemesis, is now expected to be prime minister once again. And the urban middle class and elite that supported the commando-turned-politician for most of his tenure have now shifted their loyalty to retired cricket star Imran Khan and other political forces.
The army, for its part, has worked assiduously to improve its public standing post-Musharraf. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the current army chief, has distanced the army from overt involvement in politics. He declared 2008 the Year of the Soldier, trying to restore ties with low-level officers who were alienated by the corruption of Musharraf's era. The military also issued a number of leaks to insinuate that Kayani, whom Musharraf appointed to head Inter-Services Intelligence and later the army, had never supported Musharraf's most controversial moves, such as deposing the chief justice in March 2007.
Today, the army is fighting multiple counterinsurgencies and a terrorist threat that will endure well after America departs from Afghanistan. It has no appetite or capacity to rule, despite Pakistan's failing economy and poor governance, and is banking on a smooth political transition. Kayani has expressed his support for democracy on multiple occasions and received plaudits from much of the political class.
While the current army leadership supports democratic rule, it is unwilling to have current or retired military officers held accountable in civilian courts. Last November, Kayani implicitly criticized the activist Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry for ordering an investigation into the involvement of former military officers, including ex-army chief Gen. Aslam Beg, in the rigging of the 1990 elections. Musharraf's latest folly, inadvertently allowing himself to be tried and convicted for treason (a capital offense), potentially disrupts the army's desire for a democratic transition that does not challenge its privileged position. In Pakistan, the army is more than an institution. It is effectively a biradari, or brotherhood, and a world unto itself that manufactures corn flakes, manages real estate, and -- in the words of the present army chief and his predecessors -- guards the country's "ideological and geographical borders."
For Kayani and the Pakistan Army, therefore, Musharraf is an inconvenience they hoped would be forgotten. But his impending trial should serve as a reminder that the army cannot forever have its cake and eat it too. It cannot demand accountability for corrupt civilians and yet ignore its own officers who subvert the constitution and become millionaires through ill-gotten wealth.
Despite its many mistakes over the years, the military remains Pakistan's most respected institution. The esteem is deserved. Just this month, dozens of soldiers died in the Tirah Valley near Afghanistan in battles with Taliban militants. But the sacrifices of these soldiers have received scant attention in Pakistan's private media. Some Pakistani military officers feel that their sacrifices are not being recognized. Putting Musharraf on trial could add to the disgruntlement felt within the army.
And so this is Kayani's conundrum: He may have to choose between his officers and the masses. Kayani may be able to find a middle path: a safe exit for Musharraf or a softer punishment upon conviction. But he and the army's senior officers should recognize that their Teflon is starting to wear off with an activist judiciary, powerful media, and invigorated political class. The army's immunity from accountability will eventually come to an end. Proactive self-reform will strengthen the army's bond with the Pakistani people. And that process of reform might require the trial of Mr. Musharraf to move forward.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images