Pakistan goes critical

PAKISTAN'S grave political crisis is now entering the red zone. I've been in regular contact with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. She calls the situation ‘grim’. On Friday, she was temporarily put under house arrest, preventing her from leading a mass demonstration in Islamabad.

By Eric Margolis

Published: Sun 11 Nov 2007, 8:39 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:29 AM

Bhutto tells me she may face another attempt to kill her. She accuses allies of President-General Pervez Musharraf of trying to assassinate her in the October 18th bombing in Karachi that killed or wounded hundreds.

Bhutto had planned to lead a huge march next Tuesday from Lahore to Islamabad designed to confront the army —Musharraf's power base —in a dramatic showdown. Another important Pakistani party, Jamaaite Islami, is also threatening mass demonstrations. Bhutto and other opposition leaders are calling on Musharraf to resign as military chief and run in fair, internationally supervised elections.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party commands broad popular support, particularly among the poor and illiterate. But her attempt to unleash mass demonstrations has so far been thwarted by violent police repression against her supporters and the arrest of her political allies.

My Pakistani sources report growing unrest in the 619,000-man armed forces. Senior commanders, recently promoted by Musharraf after pre-approval by Washington, still support him. But they are increasingly dismayed by the threat of a clash with civilians. Many senior officers fear their continued support of Musharraf is turning the public against the armed forces and injuring its good name.

General Ashfaq Kiyani, the newly named vice chief of staff, could be Pakistan's next strongman. If Musharraf is overthrown, killed or driven from office, Washington has chosen General Kiyani as its Plan B, either with or without Benazir Bhutto.

If Musharraf does finally resign his command, Kiyani will control the military. Musharraf, who has near zero popular support, will be left without a power base —or perhaps even army protection.

Benazir Bhutto tells me pro-Taleban tribesmen and Uzbek allies in Northwest Frontier Province on the Afghan border are rapidly taking over cities and towns. Army troops ordered to attack them have surrendered or refused to fire. The Swat Valley, which is well inside Pakistan, fell to Islamists last week.

This could mark the beginning of a rebellion in the ranks. The loyalty of the army's senior officers has been rented by billions of dollars of secret aid CIA has funnelled through Musharraf. Official post-9/11 US aid to Pakistan is $10.6 billion, but ‘black’ payments are many times higher. These mammoth payoffs have not trickled down to the mid and lower ranks. They have vanished into the pockets of the military brass and senior officials.

General Hameed Gul, former director general of Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, and an old friend from the 1980's Afghan War, has also been arrested. He kept accusing Musharraf of selling out Pakistan's national interests in return for cash and US support for his dictatorship —and of dishonouring the military. General Gul still has many friends in the army and ISI. He shouted what many officers whisper.

This week, George W Bush underlined his continued support for ally Musharraf. However, Bush called on Musharraf to doff his uniform and hold elections. Musharraf dutifully agreed to do so and hold elections next February 15. But Musharraf has won previous elections by blatant vote-rigging and bribery —we can expect more of the same. He would lose any fair vote by a landslide.

Bush made no mention of Musharraf's disgraceful firing of Supreme Court justices who were about to declare Mush's ongoing rule violated the constitution. Nor has Bush or the US Congress issued any demands that the exiled former PM Nawaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan's other major political party, the Muslim League, be allowed to return to contest elections.

So much for supporting democracy. In the name of fighting extremism, Musharraf has jailed or intimidated nearly all of Pakistan's political moderates.

In Washington's wrongheaded view, it's either Mush or the mullahs. Or if Musharraf falters, then it's Bhutto or General Kiyani. As of this writing, Bhutto still has not decided whether to collaborate with Musharraf or try to force a bloody confrontation with him. Kiyani remains an unknown.

Anyone who still wonders why so many in the Muslim World hate the West needs look no further than Pakistan, where, in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ Washington and London are stirring a witches brew of dictatorship, intrigue and violence.

Eric S. Margolis is a veteran American journalist and contributing foreign editor of The Toronto Sun.

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