Pakistan’s Khaki President

In November 2007, eight years after he first seized power, and six years after declaring himself president, General Pervez Musharraf staged his second coup against the rule of law in Pakistan. He declared martial law, suspended the Constitution and basic rights, and dismissed the Supreme Court. He also banned independent television, now the main source in Pakistan for news, commentary and political debate, and threatened the print media, because he said it was “demoralising the nation”.

After weeks of protests, during which thousands of people were arrested, President Musharraf gave up the post of Chief of Army Staff, announced the ‘lifting’ of the emergency, and said the Constitution was being restored. In fact, the emergency has been made permanent. President Musharraf has introduced an amended Constitution by decree, one that is meant to protect him from any legal challenge and which gives him more powers as president, taking them away from the office of the prime minister, who is meant to be the head of government. This includes the power to appoint the Chief of the Army and to control Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. He has also appointed a new Supreme Court, enabled military courts to hold closed-door trials of civilians, and imposed a series of restrictions on the media to prevent criticism of himself and the army. None of these actions, however, are enough to give him either the unchecked power or the legitimacy that he and the army want. The challenges that President Musharraf and the army face are too deep and too fundamental for such easy solutions.

The second coup announcement was titled “Proclamation of Emergency declared by Chief of the Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf”, and ended: “I hereby order and proclaim that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan shall remain in abeyance.” The text was a litany of complaints about the Pakistani courts, the only branch of government that the general and his army did not control. Gen Musharraf had previously rigged parliamentary elections in 2002, hand-picked a prime minister, and replaced many senior generals with loyalists.

The basic allegation that Gen Musharraf levelled against Pakistan’s courts, especially against the Supreme Court, was that they were subverting his administration. His proclamation claimed that the court’s “constant interference in executive functions, including but not limited to the control of terrorist activity, economic policy, price controls, downsizing of corporations and urban planning, has weakened the writ of the government”. It further lamented “the humiliating treatment meted to government officials by some members of the judiciary on a routine basis during court proceedings”. In short, the court was holding Gen Musharraf’s policies up to the light of the law –and finding them wanting in every area.

But Gen Musharraf’s real grievance against the court was not that it was an obstacle to the unrestricted exercise of power by his government. The problem was that it would not bend the law to his will. The court was imminently expected to rule that under the Constitution the general could not be president. Gen Musharraf suddenly found himself faced with the choice of acting as president and being bound by the Constitution and the law of the land, or ruling as chief of the army through martial law and force. The general chose khaki.

The war at home
President Musharraf has since argued that the state of emergency, imposed on 3 November, was needed to stem the Islamic militancy in Pakistan. He claimed that “there is visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, IED explosions, rocket firing and bomb explosions and the banding together of some militant groups, have taken such activities to an unprecedented level of violent intensity posing a grave threat to the life and property of the citizens of Pakistan.”

The threat is certainly real. Radical Islamist groups have taken up arms in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and there is a creeping Talibanisation of the NWFP. Violence has spread to major cities across the country over the past few years, especially suicide bombings. Hundreds of people have been killed. But the most important reason for President Musharraf’s failure to effectively counter the country’s militancy after eight years in power is the military regime itself, and its policies towards the Islamic political parties and militants.

In need of political cover after seizing power in 1999, Gen Musharraf cobbled together an alliance of opportunistic politicians – defectors from other parties as well as from the Islamist political parties. These included the most radical and violent militant groups, which the army, led by Gen Musharraf, had organised and used in the Kargil war in the spring of 1999. This military-mullah alliance is the most recent expression of a relationship that stretches back more than three decades. It was most evident in the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, who ruled from 1977 to 1988, and the US-backed jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s, as well as the Kashmir insurgency of the 1990s.

When not offering direct support, the Musharraf regime has preferred neglect and appeasement of Islamist political parties and militants: Islamic laws are allowed to stay on the books; militant groups are grudgingly banned in public and privately allowed to operate. Whether in Waziristan or during the militant takeover of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, Gen Musharraf and his fellow army chiefs preferred to ignore the problem, making concessions to the militants in the vain hope that the issue would simply go away. Each time that domestic and international demands to do something to counter the rising militancy became overwhelming, Gen Musharraf resorts to dramatic shows of force including artillery, helicopter gun-ships and air strikes. Inevitably, these have resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries, inflaming public opinion and stoking militancy further.

The strategy is floundering. Islamic militants have already spread their influence far beyond the tribal and border areas. In recent months they managed to take control of three major towns in the Swat Valley, just a few hours from Islamabad. Government forces there simply surrendered and handed over their weapons, and Pakistani flags were replaced by jihadi banners on many public buildings. In the effort to reclaim control over the valley during November and December, the army sent in helicopter gun-ships and tanks, and claimed to have killed several hundred militants. But most of the fighters, from a force said to number in the thousands, simply melted away, retreating into the mountains and back into the local population.

There is yet no sign from Islamabad of the kind of legal, politically measured, well-formulated responses that will be necessary for a long-term policy to counter militancy. It seems well beyond the capacity of the military – as an institution rooted in the use of force, command and obedience, with long-standing ties to the militants – to imagine and carry out such a policy.

People and politics
A critical goal of Gen Musharraf’s second coup was to prevent a movement for democracy and rule of law that could confront both his rule and that of the army in Pakistan. As with every previous military ruler in Pakistan, Gen Musharraf was becoming deeply unpopular. The promise he had made upon seizing power in 1999 – that “The armed forces have no intention to stay in charge longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish” – had come to be seen as shallow by most Pakistanis. The first people to be detained in the police raids under the emergency were the leaders of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, prominent lawyers and pro-democracy activists.

There have been protests across the country, led by lawyers and civil-society groups. These have been met with teargas, brute force and mass arrests, with the government admitting to detaining over 5000 people. But while the mass campaign has undoubtedly been a determined one, having been able to build on the experience of the mobilisation earlier in the year, Pakistan’s civil society remains fragile. It is poorly equipped for a long and difficult struggle against a military regime. The protestors have little experience in mass mobilisation or agitation, limited organisational reach and scarce institutional resources. The movement has not been able to rely on organised labour or student unions (both of which have been suppressed for many years) or a free news media to generate the mass support that might make for a successful strategy of strikes, boycotts, blockades and civil disobedience.

A critical role in the current situation is being played by Pakistan’s major political parties, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N). They are capable of mobilising large numbers of people, but have largely shown themselves to be as much a part of the problem as of any solution. Both the PPP and the PML (N) are extremely top-down organisations. They are populist vehicles for their leaders, rather than well-rooted democratic organisations with resilient local structures.

Both Bhutto and Sharif are also deeply compromised. Bhutto considers her party to be a personal inheritance from her father, who founded the PPP, and she has taken the post of the party chairperson for life. To come into power, she cut deals with the military; in office, her government was notorious for its corruption. Ultimately, Bhutto fled into exile to escape corruption charges against her when she was prime minister. For his part, Nawaz Sharif was plucked from obscurity by a previous military dictator, and turned into a political leader. He came into office in a military-backed coalition with Pakistan’s Islamist parties, and in power he tried to introduce an amendment to the Constitution that would have imposed Sharia law. He was overthrown by Gen Musharraf in the 1999 coup, and subsequently agreed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. Since then, many in his party have abandoned ship to join the ragtag group of politicians, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), assembled by Gen Musharraf as a fig leaf for his own rule.

Bitter enemies while in power, in exile Bhutto and Sharif were willing to come together to make common cause. In 2006, they agreed a Charter for Democracy, “Calling upon the people of Pakistan to join hands to save our motherland from the clutches of military dictatorship and to defend their fundamental, social, political and economic rights and for a democratic, federal, modern and progressive Pakistan.” But, instigated by the United States and Great Britain, Bhutto made a deal with Gen Musharraf to enable her to return from exile to join a government led by the general. She has rejected civil-society demands to boycott the January 2008 general elections, which she sees as her ticket back into office. Sharif has also returned from exile. He supported demands for a boycott of the polls, but eventually proved unwilling to leave the field open to either President Musharraf or Benazir Bhutto, and decided to contest. The Election Commission, however, subsequently upheld a ban on his candidature. Both Bhutto and Sharif may eventually bargain with President Musharraf for another turn as prime minister, despite their declarations of support for the demands of the pro-democracy protestors.

Where’s Washington?
As has happened all too frequently in Pakistan’s history, Washington has been a key player in the latest happenings. The US government was alerted to the second coup in advance. Admiral William Fallon, the head of US military forces in West Asia, met Gen Musharraf in Islamabad the day before the coup, and is reported to have warned the general against declaring an emergency. According to reports in the international press, US officials said that, “General Musharraf had been offering private assurances that any emergency declaration would be short-lived.”

The response by George W Bush’s administration was predictable. Gen Musharraf’s aides told journalists that in the crucial first few days after the coup, there were no phone calls from President Bush or any other top US official demanding an end to martial law. Rather, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Information, Tariq Azim Khan, was quoted as saying that the US “would rather have a stable Pakistan – albeit with some restrictive norms – than have more democracy”. In short, Islamabad expected – rightly, it turns out – that Washington would wring its hands and offer democratic platitudes, perhaps go forward with a token slap on the wrist, but in the end keep on supporting President Musharraf. When President Bush finally did call, he told the general little more than that he “ought to have elections soon”.

Washington has invested heavily in President Musharraf, particularly since the attacks of 11 September 2001, and has made clear that it will not even suspend its aid as a way to press him to restore democracy. Indeed, the US has supported each and every Pakistani military dictator, politically and with guns and money, starting as early as 1958. During the following 50 years, it has failed to learn that supporting Pakistan’s generals does little for the country’s people. Under American tutelage, the Pakistan Army has grown in size, and developed a fierce appetite for high-tech weapons, which now include nuclear armaments and ballistic missiles. The military has also fallen into a habit of seizing power while the people continue to struggle under grinding poverty and failing institutions. It is no wonder that the US is deeply unpopular in Pakistan. A June 2007 poll by the US-based Pew Global Attitudes Project found that only 15 percent of Pakistanis had a favourable attitude towards the US. This hostility will only worsen as Pakistanis see Washington opt for a former general and his army, rather than democracy and rule of law.

The next test for Washington will come with the January elections. The Musharraf regime is widely expected to rig these elections, if only to ensure that its opponents do not win a clear majority and threaten President Musharraf’s untrammelled power. A November poll by the International Republican Institute found that 70 percent of Pakistanis believed the Musharraf government did not deserve re-election, and 67 percent wanted President Musharraf to resign immediately. Meanwhile, Benazir Bhutto has declared, “A plan is under way to rig the elections, and to stop progress towards democracy”. She has subsequently called on her followers to prepare: “If elections are rigged, we are going to need to be in a position like the people of Ukraine were, to protest those elections.”

The best way to guarantee free and fair elections on 8 January is for President Musharraf to step down as president. Failing that, the international community must ensure that he delivers free and fair polls. US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher has already suggested that the upcoming elections are not going to be “perfect”. But Washington in particular needs to make clear that it will refuse to accept the results of a rigged ballot, and will hold President Musharraf personally responsible for the outcome.

Even if they are nominally free and fair, no one expects elections and a shift to civilian rule to be a panacea for Pakistan. But elections can mark the start of the long and difficult task of building democratic institutions and creating a system of accountability and trust between government and people, state and society. This can bring Pakistanis some hope for the future, and foster confidence that democracy and the rule of law can deliver the justice and progress that has so long been denied to them.


Leave a comment