How Pakistan is being lost
By David Gardner
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 2 2007 19:34 | Last updated: August 2 2007 19:34
For a good while now it has been hard to see what the point of General Pervez Musharraf is.
When he took power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, many Pakistanis dared to hope for an end to decades of misrule, by civilians as well as generals, that had bankrupted the country and buckled its institutions.
Pakistan’s allies and adversaries, tut-tutting on cue about the vulgar anachronism of a military coup, were privately relieved that a newly nuclear-armed state, which had just fought a small war in the Himalayas with arch-rival India, was in the grip of an officer with an ostensibly modernist outlook: a whisky liberal in an Islamic republic, an admirer of Ataturk, father of secularist Turkey, as much as of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, revered founder of Pakistan.
How naive that all seems now.
True, those who hoped or believed in Gen Musharraf seemed vindicated when he threw his weight behind the US after the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001. As the manager of an initially civilian team, moreover, the general secured some positive change, such as fiscal reform and privatisation, for a rickety economy.
But it was nothing like enough and only now is its price becoming clear.
The general had the chance to relay the foundations of stability and democratic rule. He constantly told visitors to his Army House residence in Rawalpindi that he would restore democracy as soon as he had put in place the accountability essential for it to work – accountability so foreign to the neo-feudal elites who had lorded it over Pakistani politics. Whereas previous military regimes had merely superimposed martial law on civilian rule, leaving its weak structures intact, he aimed to change them. This he has indeed done: but in a way that seeks to institutionalise and prolong his supremacy, which he appears to regard as consubstantial with the national interest. Gen Musharraf’s whole purpose has been to cling to power, civil and military.
A master tactician, he has managed to convince Washington that only he can deliver up the al-Qaeda cadres Pakistani security episodically kills or captures; that only he, survivor of two near-miss attempts on his life, can prevent the country falling to the jihadis; that it is he who must stay at the head of the army, Pakistan’s last working institution, to banish the spectre of mullahs with nukes.
The US has provided roughly $10bn in aid since 9/11, along with new F-16 fighter jets, while tacitly endorsing Gen Musharraf’s double-hatted but unconstitutional role as president and army chief of staff. Only now is the Bush administration beginning to figure out the cost of its Pakistani strongman’s terrible trade-offs.
Inside the army, Gen Musharraf has bought off some generals with sinecures, but secured the support of others by letting them abet jihad – in Afghanistan through the resurgent Taliban and in Kashmir, the divided, mainly Muslim territory at the heart of Pakistan’s warring with India. Some Pakistani officers, especially in ISI military intelligence, have long believed in the need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan as part of the primordial contest with India, as well as licensing a few thousand jihadis in Kashmir to hold down up to half a million Indian troops there.
These tactics have willy-nilly given the jihadis a run of territory from Kashmir to the Hindu Kush. But Gen Musharraf’s approach to domestic politics has been equally disastrous.
His methodical marginalisation of the country’s mainstream parties – the Pakistan People’s party of Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League faction led by Nawaz Sharif – has forced him into alliance with the religious right. Before the rigged 2002 elections, support for Islamist parties had never made it into double figures. Now, they swagger across the national stage, Talibanising the country.
Gen Musharraf is leading Pakistan back to the coup 30 years ago by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq that first set the country on an Islamist course under military tutelage. His success in blocking Pakistan’s political mainstream has given force to the violent Islamist tributaries.
Six months ago, the Bush administration sent Dick Cheney to Islamabad as evidence mounted that al-Qaeda had rebuilt its command and training structures in Pakistan’s tribal areas, with whose leaders Gen Musharraf had concluded a truce.
It is, as not only Musharraf loyalists point out, sickeningly rich that Mr Cheney, the vice-president who after 9/11 pushed so hard to go after Saddam Hussein rather than finish off Osama bin Laden, should be lecturing anyone about the international jihadism he and his superficially muscular policies have done so much to proliferate. It is also fair to say Pakistan is still struggling with the “blowback” from the anti-Soviet jihad the US sponsored in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
But Gen Musharraf has made this worse. It is no longer an exaggeration to say Pakistan risks state failure.
Its federation is fraying at the edges. The tribal areas are in revolt. In the North-West Frontier province Pashtun nationalism is fusing with Islamism. The crushing of opposition in resource-rich but dirt-poor Balochistan in order to favour pro-Taliban allies has rekindled a nationalist insurgency. Reliance on gangster-politicians in Sindh is reviving ethno-sectarian conflict.
But some of Gen Musharraf’s manoeuvres may offer opportunities. He has been praised for bloodily evicting jihadis from the Red Mosque in Islamabad last month – though had he acted when they started this challenge to the state in January there might have been fewer dead, and perhaps fewer reprisal bombings.
Yet the jihadi onslaught, and his February blunder in sacking the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, now reinstated by the Supreme Court, is pushing him to seek alliances with, for example, Ms Bhutto, whom he met in Abu Dhabi last week. He faces a renascent civil society, improbably regrouped around the hitherto supine judiciary, as well as the wrath of the jihadis after the Red Mosque assault. He needs allies. The problem is he seems to want to keep his uniform and president’s sash even more, and is angling for a deal with Ms Bhutto that would allow that.
What Pakistan needs is to postpone this parliament’s selection of a president – due to start next month – until a new assembly is fairly elected in open political contest.
Yes, the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif governments were venal and incompetent. They temporised with the army and jihadis. But Pakistan needs their supporters to build a democratic bloc against Islamist extremism, so that nation-building can begin anew. It may not work but it looks a better bet than this too-clever-by-half generalissimo.