Pakistan’s Travails

TWO days after General Pervez Musharraf promulgated the emergency, rumours of a coup were rife across Pakistan. At least one observer saw the irony of it all. “It is a testament to the woeful state of the Pakistani political imagination,” wrote Time magazine’s Brian Bennett, “that the only solution it can come up with to a military dictator is a military coup.”


It wasn’t, by a long stretch, the unkindest cut during a week in which it seemed almost everyone had a comment to offer, more often than not in the shape of a lament. And here’s a second irony: under newly amended ordinances, media outlets in Pakistan are prohibited from publishing or broadcasting anything that “defames or brings into ridicule” a number of individuals and institutions. But there appear to be no penalties for those whose actions and utterances bring disrepute to the country, else the army chief would undoubtedly find himself in the dock.


After considerable confusion and contradictory statements, his press conference at the weekend brought forth the promise of elections by January 9, but there was no indication of when the emergency might be lifted, or the feisty television channels that have proliferated in recent years – and which serve as a primary source of news for much of the population – permitted to resume their broadcasts. The matter of the president’s military post also remains shrouded in murk, even though the matter of sartorial preferences has been broached by none other than George W. Bush, who claims to bluntly have told Musharraf in a phone call last week, “You ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform.” A bit crude, perhaps, but you won’t hear Musharraf complaining. He reacted rather differently when Britain’s Daily Telegraph, in an editorial on Pakistan, cited FDR’s notorious “but he’s our sonofabitch” comment about Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza: the “insult” led to the expulsion of three foreign correspondents from Pakistan, and the dictator has demanded an apology from the newspaper.


Meanwhile, the political relationship between the General and Benazir Bhutto continues to excite comment. Like him, she’s wearing two hats at the moment: putative leader of the opposition as well as Musharraf’s potential partner in a power-sharing arrangement. She was briefly confined to her Islamabad abode last Friday, in what is cynically being interpreted as a credibility-enhancement exercise. At the weekend, Bhutto made a token effort to call on Iftikhar Chaudhry, the deposed chief justice, possibly in an effort to  harness the support of lawyers, who have been at the forefront of the limited popular resistance to what is essentially a coup against the Supreme Court. On Monday she was served with a seven-day detention order, apparently in an attempt to thwart her intention of leading a “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad on Tuesday.


The imposition of martial law caught Bhutto on the hop and it took some days before her rhetoric acquired a sharper edge, but has she nonetheless appeared determined not to completely alienate Musharraf. The feeling is probably mutual. Although Musharraf, in his news conference on Sunday, berated the western media for its premature assumption that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party would effortlessly secure a parliamentary majority, she is not being treated in quite the same manner as other adversaries. 


Their possible union is, of course, blessed by Washington, which gives the impression of being mildly embarrassed by Musharraf’s latest antics, albeit not sufficiently to withdraw its support or suspend military aid. The US undoubtedly wants Musharraf to remain in a commanding position, but for cosmetic reasons it also favours a pseudo-democratic facade.


As a potential figurehead, Benazir Bhutto fits the bill. And she is determined not to say or do anything that could conceivably interfere with her eligibility. Last Friday, while barricaded inside her Islamabad residence, she made an apparently impromptu speech to journalists during a token effort to get past the police. “We don’t want the history of Iraq to be repeated here in Pakistan,” she announced. Fair enough. Nobody wants that, barring perhaps the more outlandish Islamist extremists. But it is impossible not to be gobsmacked by the sentences that preceded this not particularly profound pronouncement. “We have seen what happens in Iraq,” she said. “There was a dictatorship, the people revolted, and there was a bloody end…”


The people of Iraq revolted not against a dictatorship but against the American occupation. The bloody end is still being played out. If any of this is news to Bhutto, her ignorance should disqualify her from holding political office even at the municipal level. It’s far likelier, however, that her inclination towards spouting nonsense of this variety reflects a pathological reluctance  to say anything that could possibly be construed even as implicit criticism of the US.


The Iraq analogy was also brought up by an unnamed adviser to Condoleezza Rice, who, after hearing about the emergency, reportedly remarked: “Thank heavens for small favours.” The provocation for his gratitude was the realisation that, compared to Pakistan, “Iraq looks pretty good”.


That, too, is nonsense. Iraq does not look “pretty good” in comparison with any country, including Afghanistan. But it’s value as a cautionary tale should not be underestimated, especially now that the US is on the verge of stepping up its military presence in Pakistan. The Washington Post reported last Friday that there was concern among American military officials that Musharraf’s second coup could undermine an initiative that involves “involves expanding the presence of US Special Forces and other troops to train and advise Pakistanis, who have been largely ineffective in battling the hardline militants”.


Let’s not forget that the initial US role in Vietnam was justified in similar language, and the term “counterinsurgency plan” has all too often served  as a euphemism for attacks against the civilian population in any number of countries across the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.


The fundamentalist fiefdoms established in the northern areas by the likes of Maulana Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud undoubtedly need to be dismantled. However, exclusive resort to military means has thus far proved ineffective as well as counterproductive. Direct American input is guaranteed to make matters worse.


In its 60 years, Pakistan has been encumbered with more than its fair share of would-be saviours, many of them in military uniform. If Benazir Bhutto’s credentials seem sullied in this respect, it would only be fair to acknowledge that all those liberals who greeted Musharraf’s 1999 coup as the dawn of a bright new phase were – notwithstanding  Nawaz Sharif’s appalling misrule – hopelessly naive and far too willing to overlook historical precedents. The majority of them have since seen the light.


The institutions essential to democratic sustenance haven’t, in the interim, been strengthened. It doesn’t make much sense to cite Abraham Lincoln – as Musharraf did in his rambling peroration justifying the emergency – in justifying constitutional violations while the ideal of a government of the people, by the people and for the people remains relegated to the realm of wishful thinking.


The way forward? “A government of national reconciliation … backed by the military”, as the incarcerated head of the Human Rights Commission, Asma Jahangir, suggested in  last week, would be well worth a try. It would have to be preceded, of course, by elections, preferably of the free and fair variety. All political detainees need to be released before that, and media freedoms restored. The restitution of an independent judiciary, the rule of law and basic human rights would be equally welcome. Persuading the army to takes orders from civilian authorities and desist from political interference would probably be the hardest part.


None of the foregoing suggestions is at odds with any reasonable concept of “enlightened moderation”, which once used to be Musharraf’s favourite catchphrase. But, going back to Brian Bennett’s observation, the least unrealistic prospect may well be an alternative military chief who recognizes that the army’s role in politics has always been detrimental to national progress and that a decisive break with this pattern is fast becoming an existential necessity. Pakistan desperately needs to cast off the curse of continuity and the shackles of pious obscurantism. Musharraf’s emergency is deeply unpopular, yet there has been little evidence of mass mobilisation – not least because all the large political parties have thoroughly discredited themselves over the decades. Bhutto remains capable of attracting a crowd, but her depressing record in power as well as her current machinations allow little scope for optimism.


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