Monday, December 17, 2007

Pakistan’s self-inflicting fight for survival

This piece was written in late November. Since then, General Musharraf has given up the Army Chief's post and has also, recently, lifted the emergency in Pakistan.

Democracy in Pakistan has had a checkered history right from the country's inception in1947. A healthy democracy has four pillars: an independent and impartial judiciary, free and fearless press, an honest legislature, and a committed and people-oriented executive. However, in Pakistan, democracy has a zeroth pillar, one which overrules the other four: the military. There, democracy functions only at the mercy of the military. A quick browse through the country's history proves this. The shameful debacle of the Pakistani army in the 1971 war with India, which resulted in East Pakistan declaring its independence, made the army very unpopular with the masses. This prompted a return of democracy. Zulfikar Bhutto, father of Benazir Bhutto, became Prime Minister in 1972. But the then Chief of Army Staff, General Zia-ul-Haq, ousted Bhutto in 1977 and imposed martial law.

Democracy again had a dash at survival when General Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988. However, civilian politicians who came to power after his demise failed miserably. During, prominent civilian Prime Ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, did very little to uplift the living standards of the common man. Instead, they robbed the country. Little surprise then, when General Musharraf staged a coup in 1999, Sharif, who was then the Prime Minister, received no public support. Both Bhutto and Sharif continue to face serious corruption charges. Thanks to the vileness of civilian rulers, it is generally accepted that Pakistan is best governed under a military dictatorship.

After coming to power in a bloodless coup, General Musharraf fashioned himself as Pakistan's Kemal Atatürk. Seeking to make Pakistan a modern Islamic state and modernize the army, Musharraf said he was ready to do battle with the jehadis. But fate had other plans for the General. 9/11 intervened and redrew Pakistan's geostrategic alliance with the US. Musharraf committed himself to the war on terror in Afghanistan and as a quid pro quo, political and military aid poured into Pakistan. Since 9/11, financial aid worth $11 million has come to the country from Western powers, primarily the US. While this arrangement has helped Pakistan tide over many financial crises, it has also attached to General Musharraf the rather unwholesome tag of "America's poodle".

9/11 and the US occupation of Iraq have forced the Pakistani ruling elite to accept that democracy is the way of the future. Having said that, the country has to work overtime to ensure that the breeding of terrorists on its soil is stopped. Tough measures are required to curb fundamentalist activities in Pakistan. This, as is only too well known, is easier said than done. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's secret service branch of the military, has been training and supplying arms to militants, right from the time the Soviets were in Afghanistan. Militants were also used and are still being used against India in a bid to snatch away part of the border state of Jammu and Kashmir from Indian territory.

India, Pakistan's neighbor on perpetual watch, is in a fix on how best to deal with the new situation. Musharraf has been wont to running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. On one hand, recent reports have revealed that the General gave serious thought to the use of nuclear weapons during the Kargil war of 1999. Pakistan’s A Q Khan, the disgraced nuclear scientist also known as the “father of the Islamic bomb”, is widely believed to have run a flourishing nuclear black market with the General’s connivance. Pakistan’s naked nuclear ambition and the prospect of its nuclear bombs falling in the hands of the jehadis makes the international community's dilemma manifold.

But the General has shown remarkable ruthlessness to fundamentalism when it threatens his own position. In July this year, he ordered the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad to flush out Islamist militants holed there. The standoff lasted for several days. Hundreds of Islamist activists and students were killed, but the operation restored the law of the land, and jehadi activities were effectively checked. To India, which has suffered the maximum damage from terrorist activities sponsored by Pakistan, General Musharraf's firm stand was a welcome surprise.

India, on its part, has had ample experience of fighting terror and understands how difficult it is to contain this menace when one's own citizens take violence into their hands. Its experience in containing Sikh militancy in Punjab provides relevant pointers. The Indian army was ordered by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to invade the Sikhs' holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to flush out Sikh militants who had made the temple their strategic headquarters. Fighting one's own countrymen causes emotional turmoil and may even threaten the unity of a nation. Titled Operation Blue Star, the operation against Sikh militants was undertaken under the cover of night in 1984. A total of 90 shells were fired and the separatists were brought down by the army. However, the holy temple was found to have been riddled by over 300 bullet holes.

The desecration of their holiest shrine caused immense resentment among the Sikhs. Retribution was swift and brutal. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguard within months of the operation. General A S Vaidya, the Army Chief at the time of Operation Blue Star, was also assassinated in 1986 in Pune. But the seemingly harsh decision of invading the Golden Temple resulted in a new era unfolding in Punjab. Today, Punjab is a peaceful state and progressing well in a democratic setup. So, hard decisions are at times essential in the larger interest of the nation, even though, and this is added with extreme caution, they may demand the life of a leader.

To be sure, fighting terror is a long-drawn struggle. It cannot be won in a year or two. This poses fresh troubles for General Musharraf, who is not a democratically elected leader. The crux of the matter is that the General draws his strength from America's support, and not from the general public. Moreover, sponsoring militancy has been ISI's bread and butter for over three decades. If now, thanks to the changed global geostrategic scenario, Pakistan wants to part ways with the militants, it's going to have to walk on a bed of thorns. Recently, many soldiers in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) preferred surrendering arms before pro-Taliban militia and tribesmen rather than fighting and killing them. The morale of the Pakistani army is at its lowest ebb. It would be a Herculean task to rejuvenate the army to fight its Islamic brothers in the guise of terrorists, particularly in the NWFP. For General Musharraf, it is an almost impossible job.

At the other end of the spectrum is the judiciary. The judiciary under Justice Iftikaar Chowdhary has repeatedly run into verbal fisticuffs with the ISI-backed ruling establishment. Earlier this year, the many contradictions within Pakistan's intrigue-ridden power structure set in motion a chain of events that concluded with the imposition of emergency.

This is what happened. On receiving inputs that Justice Chowdhary would not toe his line, General Musharraf sacked the Pakistani Chief Justice in March 2007. Countrywide protests in favor of Justice Chowdhary erupted. A wave of resentment for General Musharraf's policies amidst a feeling that Islamist extremists were being targeted on American instructions, swept Pakistan. Under pressure, Musharraf re-instated Justice Chowdhary on the backing of a majority decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court. With Musharraf's victory at the Presidential election held in October 2007 challenged in the Supreme Court, the writing on the wall was clear. Adding fuel to fire, Justice Chowdhary was to decide this case. The General was left with no option but to impose emergency. Thousands of lawyers took to the streets leading to clashes with the police. Armed personnel roamed the streets and curfews were imposed in several Pakistani cities for days on end.

To his credit, Musharraf has sent feelers he’d give up the post of Army Chief soon. He has named an interim Prime Minister until elections are held in Pakistan. So far so good, but the outcome of an election under emergency rule will largely be decided by Musharraf himself and not the public at large. Will Pakistan's enfant terrible be able to abide the many paradoxical promises he has made to his domestic and international constituencies? Only time will tell.

If, at the end of the day, and it's a very big if, General Musharraf succeeds in cleansing Pakistan's image as the breeder of Islamic extremism, and is able to secure Pakistan's vast stockpile of nuclear weapons from landing into the hands of international terrorist organizations, he will be remembered as a national hero and a world-class statesman. Else, history will dump him and treat him as cruelly as it has the other dictators in Pakistan's troubled past.


William deB. Mills said...

In your interesting article, you say, "Thanks to the vileness of civilian rulers, it is generally accepted that Pakistan is best governed under a military dictatorship." What would you say to the alternative view that the Pakistani military controlled politics and the national budget to the degree that they were responsible for essentially everything under both Bhutto and Sharif, that in fact neither prime minister really had any power?

Vikram Johri said...

Hello William, indeed, the Pakistani military has firmly entrenched itself in all matters of Pakistani public life. But there have been instances where the work of enlightened civil servants has borne fruit. Read an interview with Dr. Ishrat Hussain which broaches this issue, at

Especially this:

Q. Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc paints a picture of Pakistan run by generals … earlier, they said that from the corn flakes at breakfast to the mattress on the bed you slept on at night, everything was made by the Fauji Foundation. You’re saying President Musharraf gave all that up?

A. Of course, a lot of heads of corporations or even those of organisations such as the Water and Power Development Authority (appointed by Nawaz Sharif!) are ex-army, but our committee’s recommendations on selection have been approved only recently. As for the hold of army foundations, it is vastly exaggerated. I’d presented a paper at the Johns Hopkins where I showed, in 2002, the share of the assets of all military-owned and related companies to those of all the companies listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange was just 3.6 per cent.