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Getting out of the Pakistan quagmire

BY PRAFUL BIDWAI / 10 November 2007

WITH characteristic recklessness, General Pervez Musharraf has undermined Pakistan's fragile democratic institutions, and plunged it into frightening instability. His “emergency” is nothing but unadulterated martial law imposed by a desperate dictator bereft of a strategy to resolve any of the problems his own rule has aggravated.

Musharraf's main targets are the judiciary, lawyers, the media, and civil society organisations (CSOs), including human rights defenders. Especially nasty is his assault on the Supreme Court, dismissal of the Chief Justice, and his order that its judges and those of the High Courts swear allegiance to his regime. With his coup, he has managed to illegally quash all petitions against his election as president.

The entire world is impressed by the intensity and defiant spirit of the anti-martial law protesters. If the mainstream parties join in, the protests could acquire irresistible force.

Signs are emerging that Musharraf's decision to impose martial law didn't have the full backing of the establishment, even the military. Some of his own advisers opposed it.

Musharraf cited 11 different reasons, eight of which pertain to the judiciary's “interference in executive functions”, including “control of terrorist activity, economic policy, price controls … and urban planning”. These won't wash.

The judiciary did assert itself through suo motu interventions-quite justifiably in the Pakistan Steel Mills case, Chief Justice Choudhry's reinstatement, and inquiries into “missing persons'” cases, etc. But admittedly, it also indulged in some grandstanding.

However, this happened well before the presidential election. Musharraf went along — conveniently forgetting constitutional propriety and defence of the executive's domain. He criticised the judiciary only when he sensed it might rule against him on the presidential election.

Then, he ruthlessly perpetuated his rule while cynically citing grand causes like “threats to the nation”.

Some supreme court interventions seem questionable, like ordering the government to reopen the Lal Masjid and release 61 suspects long held without charges.

Ironically, the judges involved, Mohammad Nawaz Abbasi and Faqir Mohammad Khokhar, took the new oath of allegiance to Musharraf! Even more unconvincing are the other reasons cited for martial law: viz, protecting Pakistan against “extremism” and “terrorism”. These forces have indeed grown, especially in the North-West Frontier Province, North and South Waziristan, Bajaur, and recently Swat, besides Balochistan.

However, their growth can be largely attributed to Musharraf's inept, half-hearted military operations against the extremists, coupled with his strategy of cutting unviable deals with them. He got $11 billion from the US to fight its Global War on Terror (GWoT). But he didn't deliver.

It's not lack of military powers, or judicial constraints, that has hobbled the fight against the fundamentalists. The real constraint lies in the demoralisation of Pakistan's security forces, their high casualty rates, and desertions, estimated at more than 150. These have occurred for the first time since the Bangladesh War.

Musharraf's martial law is certain to increase public alienation, social turmoil and political instability. That will prove conducive to the further growth of extremism. Musharraf has aborted the democratic political process which alone could have acted as a buffer against extremism.

Benazir Bhutto is perfectly right in saying that military dictatorship and fundamentalism will feed on each other. But she herself has been collusive in creating these conditions.

Had she not entered into a US-brokered deal with Musharraf, which let her off corruption charges in return for her tacit support to his election as President, events could have shaped differently. Instead, she prevented her Pakistan People's Party from joining the pro-democracy agitation, and made many unsavoury compromises.

The future of the other major player, Nawaz Sharif, remains uncertain. Whether his PML(N) will join, broaden and energise the anti-martial law struggle is unclear. At any rate, the present situation should settle the Pakistani debate between the “transitionists” (who want gradual change to democracy), and the “transformationists” (who stand for radical or quantum shifts).

Another thing is clear too. By targeting Pakistan's CSOs, which represent secular liberals, Musharraf has undermined the chance of building a political climate that could help him combat extremism without becoming overly dependent on the US. There's some uncertainty over how strongly Washington will use its leverage over Musharraf to get the martial law lifted. Left to itself, the US wouldn't have gone beyond “regretting” the coup and threatening to review aid. The New York Times says many US officials want to “keep billions of dollars flowing to Pakistan's military” because they see Musharraf as their best bet in fighting Al Qaeda/Taleban. Yet, when President Bush and Secretary Condoleezza Rice, shamed by the street-level protests in Pakistan, demanded that Musharraf “take off his uniform” and “quickly return to a constitutional path”, the Pakistan establishment announced that elections would be held soon.

So, political pressure can yield results in tandem with mass protests. In their absence, it won't. A historic chance awaits Bhutto: she can make minor, narrow, personal gains while allowing the army to prolong its rule; or she can help transform Pakistan into a real democracy.

We'll soon know which option she chooses.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in

 
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