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Tuesday, October 19, 1999 Published at 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK

World: South Asia

Analysis: Can the army deliver?

Military wants a breathing space to tackle main problems

By Robert Bradnock of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies

While the Commonwealth's decision to suspend Pakistan from membership may have little immediate effect, it raises questions about the obstacles the new government of General Musharraf will face in tackling the country's domestic and international crisis.

Pakistan in crisis
Given its philosophy and membership, the Commonwealth's decision to withdraw membership privileges from the new military regime was only to be expected.

There are few sanctions with which the Commonwealth can back up its disapproval of either the coup or the new 'soft-faced' military government of Pakistan's National Security Council, but it has set the tone of disapproval for other major international bodies.

[ image:  ]
With a desperately bleak economic outlook, crumbling democratic institutions and fractious regions, General Musharraf spent most of his first major speech to the nation outlining the depth of the domestic political crisis, which he claims, forced the army's hand.

Bleak economic scene

With debts of about $34bn and foreign reserves of just $1bn, spiralling defence costs in the wake of Pakistan's retaliatory nuclear test in May 1998 dramatically worsened the climate for international assistance on which Pakistan critically depended.

[ image: Defence costs spiralled after missile tests]
Defence costs spiralled after missile tests
It has suffered far more from the sanctions imposed on it than did India, which was able to more than recoup its lost investment from a mass inflow of funds from expatriate Indians. For Pakistan the reluctant commitment of IMF loans last year was a stopgap for an economy in free fall.

Economic failure was matched by a total failure to resolve the rumbling internal unrest, especially in the key southern province of Sindh.

The promise of new diplomatic initiatives with India ushered in by the Lahore process suggested new promise, but by mid-June Pakistan was bemused by the Kargil fiasco, a military initiative whose purpose remained obscure throughout and whose sudden end spelt political humiliation.

Courting world opinion

Putting the immediate history behind him, General Musharraf outlined a programme through which he hopes to gain maximum domestic political support while doing his best to reduce the loss of overseas support.

Tackling corruption may be a repeated claim by incoming politicians in the sub-continent, but it had a ring of conviction, which will undoubtedly gain popular support.

His clear rejection of extreme fundamentalism was aimed at both a domestic and foreign audience.

Still more clearly tailored to the United States were the stated aims of foreign policy, including a commitment to restraint in the nuclear field and to a withdrawal of troops from the Indian front.

Getting breathing space

This move will also be welcomed in India as a significant gesture.

[ image: Gen Musharraf: Hoping West will remain cautious]
Gen Musharraf: Hoping West will remain cautious
It will not be enough in itself to stop the external pressure to announce a timetable return to democracy, but General Musharraf may well be banking on the view that any sanctions imposed by the West may cause worse problems than they solve.

He is clearly hoping that he will be given a breathing space in which he can use the immediate popular support for his coup to shift Pakistan's economy and foreign policy away from the precipice on which it is currently teetering.

If Pakistan pulls back from the economic brink, shows itself willing to listen to the international agenda on nuclear weapons, and takes significant steps to negotiate a new relationship with India, he could make it difficult for the international community to turn its back on him for good.

If he is able to match those developments with maintaining his stated commitment to human rights and the freedom of the press, he may make the moral claim that he has been more democratic than previous governments which have claimed the name but failed to deliver on the substance.

But for the moment that remains a big "if".

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