To say that Pakistan is in dire straits is to state the obvious. Extremists stalk the land and the writ of the state does not run on chunks of strategic territory in Balochistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province.
While its army seems to be biding its time in the barracks, its civil society is in despair over the antics of its politicians who are unable to move forward from their historic achievement of having replaced a military dictator through largely peaceful means. But like all events that are too close to be viewed accurately, there is another side to this.
This is in the achievement of the Pakistani civil society and mainstream political parties in successfully replacing a brazen and mendacious military dictator through entirely peaceful means. Their pressure achieved the impossible — a coalition of rivals, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)— to form the government. Now they must ensure that these parties find some way of ensuring that their rivalry does not provide another opportunity for the army to intervene in the affairs of the country.
Ever since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, we have been presented with two discourses — that the general is the best means of saving Pakistan from itself. Given the Taliban in Afghanistan and the undercurrents of jihadi violence in Pakistan, the only person who could deliver was the man who had the only functioning instrumentality — the army — under his control. In that sense he was good for the US, and from 2004 onwards he also became good for India. He was the man who preached “enlightened moderation” and had the guts to articulate a non-traditional solution for the Jammu and Kashmir dispute and the person who was able to order a ceasefire along the Line of Control.
The second discourse, the one that demanded the rule of law, accountability and democracy was seen as a dangerously unstable development that could lead to the mullahs gaining control of the country and its nuclear weapons. So it was not surprising that the US ignored Musharraf’s refusal to doff his uniform as promised in 2004 and remained unconvinced by the evidence that he was playing fast and loose with them in relation to the Taliban thereafter. The Americans more or less remained silent through 2007 when he dismissed the Chief Justice of Pakistan and later declared Emergency. They ignored the lawyers movement which captured the imagination of the country’s civil society. Musharraf remained their stable ally in the war against terror and their hope for a moderate Pakistan.
Now both those story lines have come to an end and a new one must be started. The only problem is that it refuses to get going. Yet its outline is visible. In the past six months the Pakistani civil society has created a massive movement that has managed to oust a mendacious dictator without a general breakdown or strife. This movement has been largely secular and one of its great achievements has been to marginalise the mullah parties of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. At the end of the day, a nation’s character depends on the resolve of its citizens and Pakistanis have shown that they are as determined as any people to seize their destiny and shape it on their own future as a democratic and secular state.
This is the problem that Asif Zardari confronts as he makes his move to become the President of the country. The powerful upsurge that overthrew Musharraf was in great measure shaped by the civil society movement demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Ifthikar Muhammad Chaudhary. Without his reinstatement, the restoration of democracy will not be quite complete. Yet Zardari knows that he confronts a great hazard in reinstating a Chief Justice who may have been removed by Musharraf for his maverick ways, but whose removal has transformed the Pakistani judiciary and civil society and steeled their demand for a reinstatement of the rule of law and accountability.
The new equations shaping up in Pakistan seem to have excited a great deal of interest. The report that US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher has rebuked US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, is one manifestation of the situation. A day later comes the news that the White House has backed Mr. Khalilzad, who has had impressive credentials as a Bush administration insider.
Memories tend to be short and people have probably forgotten that the return of the Bhuttos to Pakistan was negotiated by the United States. This involved Musharraf invoking the National Reconciliation Ordinance through which the Zardari-Bhutto financial peccadilloes were overlooked. So with the departure of Musharraf, the US is no doubt hoping that the erstwhile consort of Benazir Bhutto will be their point man in the region.
The US needs to worry about the fate of its war in Afghanistan, just as India has to worry about Kashmir and the terrorist offensive emanating from forces within Pakistan. The elements in the equation are the same. Some call them rogue agents, others say they are within the Inter Services Intelligence itself. I would argue that they are what is today termed as the “deep establishment”— an informal network of military leaders, politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals. All of them are Pakistani patriots who see destabilising neighbours as a means of shaping and protecting their own country’s shaky identity.
In all this, one figure stands out — Mr. Nawaz Sharif. His estrangement with the Army seems to be quite deep considering how close he came to the guillotine in 1999. His alienation from his erstwhile allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami, ensures that he is isolated in the present set-up. His present predicament does not brook easy answers. Having been outmaneuvered by Zardari who has his own man as governor in Punjab where the PML(N) runs a minority government, he does not have too many options at this juncture. On the other hand the PPP has managed to retain the loyalty of the Mohajir Quami Movement and Awami National Party which are supporting its presidential candidate Asif Zardari.
The task of the civilian set up is not easy. The 2008 election outcome in the National Assembly and the Provinces do not give much room to either the PPP or the PML(N). Even then, their political quarrels are only the side-show in a country which is in the throes of severe internal strife and is already witnessing a flight of capital and surging inflation.
In the 1990s, the PML and the PPP ran alternate governments. Both used the opportunity of being in power to undermine the other side. The net gainer from their conflict was the army which then kept them out of power from 1999 to February 2008.
The Pakistan Army is lying low because, first, they have lost a great deal of credibility with the people of the country. Second, they need to conserve their energies to deal with the challenges to Pakistan’s internal security, given what virtually seems to be a Pakhtun uprising on their western border. And third, they are aware that each time a general takes charge, it becomes that much more difficult to hold on to it. Like their South Asian cousins, the Indians, Pakistanis, too, seem to have developed a taste for democracy.
This article was first published by Mail Today August 28, 2008