Pakistan is, once again, in the throes of a serious crisis. The country is under martial law. The elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, his brother, Shahbaz and General Ziaudin, the head of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) are under house arrest. Ever since its foundation in 1947, the Pakistani state has been plagued by a failure to establish strong democratic institutions. The reason is simple. From 1951 onwards, when the country had become a US pawn in the cold war, Washington felt that the army was the best guarantor of Washington’s interests in the region. General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship (1958-68) was openly backed by the US state department, till it was swept aside by a popular uprising that lasted three months. General Zia’s monstrous regime (1977-89) was spawned by the Pentagon and the Defense Intelligence Agency, eager for a proxy to take on the Russians in Afghanistan.
For the third time in its traumatic history, the army has seized power, this time, apparently, against the advice of the US. The people – disillusioned, apathetic, weary – appear indifferent to the fate of their venal politicians. There is widespread disgust at the inability of successive governments to control the scale of corruption. For several years now, the decay at the heart of the administration had become a national scandal. Politicians were so busy lining their own pockets that they had little time to ponder the welfare of the country and its people.
In 1997 a palace coup, orchestrated by her own hand-picked president, removed Benazir Bhutto. It was alleged that she and her husband, Senator Asif Zardari, had used the Prime Minister’s House to amass a large private fortune, estimated at somewhere close to $1bn.
In the subsequent general elections, her long-time opponent, Nawaz Sharif scored a triumph, winning 80% of the seats in parliament, but on the basis of an exceptionally low turn-out. Only 25% of the electorate bothered to vote. Benazir’s supporters punished her by staying at home. The new government had promised a great deal, but nothing changed.
The country continued to rot. Pakistan has never been able to provide the bulk of its population with either free education or health, but in the past it could offer food to the poor at subsidised prices and protect innocent lives from random killings. No longer. Everything is falling apart. A country that spends billions to fund its arsenal of nuclear weapons, forces its poor to eat grass. The suicide rate among the poor, driven insane by poverty, has risen sharply over the last decade. Last January a transport worker in Hyderabad, who had not been paid for two years, soaked himself in petrol and set himself alight outside the Press Club. He left behind a letter: "I have lost patience. Me and my fellow workers have been protesting the non-payment of our salaries for a long time. But nobody takes any notice. My wife and mother are seriously ill and I have no money for their treatment. My family is starving and I am fed up with quarrels. I don’t have the right to live. I am sure the flames of my body will reach the houses of the rich one day."
The Sharif brothers and their father, strong believers in globalisation and neo-liberal economics, helped create an enterprise culture in which they genuinely believed that everything was for sale, including politicians, civil servants and, yes, generals. There were widespread rumours that, in order to buy time and make yet more money, the Sharif family had provided sackfuls of general-friendly dollars to bolster their support in the army. A section of the high command was enraged by this civilian interference.
The immediate cause of the latest coup was Sharif’s decision to sack the army chief, General Musharraf while he was on an official visit to Sri Lanka and appoint General Ziaudin in his place. Just as Pakistan TV was showing Sharif appointing and congratulating the new army chief, the old army pulled the plug and the country’s TV screens went blank. Ziaudin, as the ISI boss, is the main supplier of the Taliban army in Afghanistan. He is sympathetic to the fundamentalist cause and loathed by officers, who value the secular side of the army and enjoy drinking whisky to the tune of bagpipes at regimental dinners.
Musharraf’s supporters inside the army moved swiftly. Once Nawaz Sharif’s instruction that the plane returning the general to Pakistan be diverted to a foreign country was ignored and Musharraf landed at a Karachi Airport secured by the army it became obvious that the government would be toppled. The bloated Pakistan army – one of the Pentagon’s spoilt brats in Asia – hated becoming a cold war orphan. "Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," a retired general told me last year. "We’ve served our purpose and they think we can just be flushed down the toilet."
Last year the army, fearful that a forced rapprochement with India might lead to a relegation of its status and power and a reduction of its budget, played the nuclear card. This was followed by an adventurous border clash with India in Kashmir during which Pakistan received a severe drubbing. This increased tensions with the government which tried to pin the entire blame for the botched operation on the army. Now General Musharraf has seized power in the country, but in changed conditions.
The army is no longer a unified institution. Well organized groups of Islamic zealots have penetrated its core. Unlike the older and more traditional religious parties, the Soldiers of the First Four Caliphs, the Soldiers of Muhammed, the Soldiers of Medina and the Volunteers are all hungry for power. Their preferred model is that of the Taliban and earlier in the year one of their factions seized several villages in the North-West Frontier province and declared the area to be under "Islamic law". A public destruction of TV sets and dish antennae took place in the village of Zargari. If such a faction were ever to take over the Pakistan army – and the possibility is not as remote as it seemed a few years ago – then the possession of nuclear weapons would acquire a frightening new significance.
If Washington refuses to tolerate a new dictator, the most likely scenario is a caretaker government staffed by IMF-approved technocrats. That, too, will achieve little, for the only serious and rational alternative to domestic chaos is a long-term treaty of friendship and trade with India, a new permanent settlement which could form the basis of a larger EU-style confederation of south Asian republics. For over 50 years, Pakistan has turned its back on India, imagining it could replace its giant neighbour by cultivating links with the gulf states and Saudi Arabia. The strategy has been a political and economic failure, leaving the country denuded of a skilled labour force and incapable of meeting its own basic needs.
In recent years there have been a few signs in that politicians of the main secular parties were beginning to explore a new economic deal with India. Pressure from the fundamentalists and the army sent their heads quickly back into the sand. And yet this remains the only rational solution in the medium term. All other options are bleak beyond belief. The ISI-armed fundamentalists are waiting in the wings. If they decided to split the army it would unleash a bloody civil war, with devastating consequences for the region. If the politicians of the sub-continent fail to devise a way of living together, they might end up dying together.