After the U-turn on the Turning Away

Indian Express and The Nation (Pakistan), September 25, 2002

One year has passed since General Pervez Musharraf abandoned Afghanistan’s Taliban, disavowed state sponsorship for Islamic militancy and aligned his government with the United States. The general has benefited enormously from his famous U-turn. Foreign aid has started flowing, Pakistan’s crippling debt has been rescheduled and the military regime’s international isolation has given way to praise and acceptance.
But the U-turn remains incomplete and the Pakistani people have yet to benefit directly from this policy shift, which amounted to cutting of losses rather than a bold initiative in any case. Since his recent visit to the United States for participation in the UN general assembly, General Musharraf’s emphasis on ties with the US seems to have shifted. Instead of working overtime to secure US approval, as he had done throughout the previous year, he is now trying to be a less compliant ally. Is there another U-turn round the corner?

The signs of the shift are subtle but unmistakable. First, the general refused to get drawn into the controversy over the prospective invasion of Iraq. ‘‘We have our hands full,’’ he declared, which is true in addition to being practical policy. Pakistan has nothing to gain from a US invasion of Iraq or even from the toppling of Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, it could be a major loser if the doctrine of ‘‘justified preemption’’ is invoked in attacking Baghdad, resulting in changing international law that has so far not endorsed preemptive attacks against sovereign states. But General Musharraf had marketed himself to the Bush administration as a strong-willed ally. If allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia nuance their positions in case of multilateral action against Iraq, it will be difficult for the general to stay away from action and still seek critical ally status in Washington.

Soon after sending the ‘‘too busy to help you with Iraq’’ message, the Musharraf regime directly contradicted a top US official over an alleged attempt on the general’s life. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who had been an interlocutor in the last round of Indo-Pak sabre-rattling, told a committee of the US Congress that a plot to kill Musharraf had been foiled, which Musharraf’s spokesmen later denied. Information Minister Nisar Memon went to the extent of wondering where Armitage had got his information from, not realizing that US officials take extra care in being factually correct before Congress.

Either the report was correct or the Pakistani authorities had tried to score points with the US by incorrectly passing information of an impending threat to General Musharraf’s life. An ally taking risks to his person gets sympathy, even concessions. But the denial was necessary for domestic political reasons. Military strongmen do not seem that strong if there are reports of as many as seven attempts or plots against their life. In any case, officials of an authoritarian regime trying to be all things to all people are more likely to lie than a senior US official who has nothing to gain from such inexactitudes. Although relatively minor in importance, the episode indicates that Washington and Islamabad are not reading from the same page.

In supporting the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks, General Musharraf had expected a US tilt towards Pakistan, especially in its dispute with India. This was the same expectation that led Field Marshal Ayub Khan to allow U-2 spy flights against the erstwhile Soviet Union from Badaber, near Peshawar during the 1960s and encouraged General Yahya Khan to stumble into the war over Bangladesh in 1971. But the US cannot change its worldview to suit Pakistan. The Bush administration is willing to support General Musharraf but only to a point. As America’s need for Pakistan’s support in the war in Afghanistan declines, or the focus shifts to another region such as Iraq, its attntion to Musharraf’s requirements is bound to diminish.

As if to gain Washington’s attention, Interior Minister Lt General Moinuddin Haider declared recently that there was no conclusive evidence of Al Qaeda involvement in attacks on Western targets in Pakistan this year and suggested that India may have financed them. He said al-Qaeda suspects arrested this month came to Pakistan as fugitives, not to carry out attacks.

But Haider also claimed that there had been about 200 cases of bomb blasts or sabotage in Pakistan in the past three years, of which only four or five had been solved. ‘‘And it of course was pointing towards India,’’ he said of those cases. His remarks mean that Pakistan and the US also do not have the same enemy. The question is, whether the US and Pakistan will be able to remain strong allies if their definition of the enemy remains so far apart.

Pakistan has many justifiable grievances against India but other countries of the world do not share its view of its neighbour as a permanent enemy. Pakistan’s security seems in peril whichever way one looks at Haider’s allegations. If he is right, and India has managed to generate 200 acts of sabotage in Pakistan of which only four or five cases have been solved, there is reason for Pakistanis to be concerned. And if he is blaming India to drum up domestic support from an anti-India constituency then, too, Pakistan faces trouble. The ability of Pakistani rulers to mobilize support by turning on India means that there is no reasonable prospect of an early settlement of India-Pakistan disputes. The Sangh Parivar and the anti-India establishment in Pakistan will see to it that both countries continue to talk of each other as enemies, instead of searching for ways to live together in peace.

Toning down the alliance with the US would make sense for Pakistan only if it was accompanied by some progress in relations with India. Alternatively, Islamabad could seek somewhat better terms of engagement with New Delhi through the good offices of the US. But it is unrealistic to expect American support while maintaining hostilities with India especially when in the past such support has never been forthcoming.

If the Musharraf regime is playing tough in the hope that it will somehow influence Washington into another tilt like 1971, it may do well to remember that even that tilt did not help Pakistan in the Bangladesh war.

Trouble Twins for the General called Bhutto and Sharif

Indian Express, September 4, 2002

The rapprochement between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif has reached a stage where it could significantly alter the course of Pakistani politics. During the last decade, Pakistan’s evolution as a constitutional democracy was hindered by the rivalry of these two leaders. Their conflict benefited the establishment, which encouraged the confrontation in the hope of retaining power. Now, however, Sharif has decided to express solidarity with Bhutto by withdrawing his nominations after hers were rejected. Pakistan may be on the way towards a final battle between supporters of democracy and the forces of establishment and military control.
Unlike most Muslim countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, Pakistan is not a nation that has never tasted the fruit of democracy. It was born in 1947 out of a democratic process and has yearned for democracy during intermittent periods of military rule. But generals have ruled Pakistan for over half its existence as an independent state. And each one of these military rulers has tried to re-define democracy.

Political leaders have often made expedient deals with the establishment for self-advancement. But whenever civilian leaders have questioned the basic premises of the establishment’s vision for the country, they have been shown the door. The consequence: the shrinking of the civilian constituency for military rule and an unwillingness to play the game by the existing rules. In that sense, the Bhutto-Sharif deal reflects a maturing of Pakistan’s politicians. It has taken over four decades of intervention to bring about such closing of ranks among the political class.

When Field Marshal Ayub Khan imposed martial law in 1958, he was able to take over a large segment of the Pakistan Muslim League. General Yahya Khan’s regime managed to do business with all political parties by holding out the promise of impartial elections. General Ziaul Haq enjoyed the support of Islamic parties as well as a large portion of the PML. Now, it seems neither the major parties nor the Islamists are willing to trust the establishment. Had they understood that earlier, it would have been difficult for Musharraf to assume power in October 1999.

It is interesting that whenever military rulers have held elections, they have done so in the hope not of restoring democracy but of exposing the incompetence of the civilians. General Yahya is often credited with holding Pakistan’s first general elections in 1970. But according to declassified US government papers, he told American diplomats in 1969 he did not expect a stable government to emerge from these polls.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were both removed through palace coups amid accusations of widespread corruption and incompetence. Although General Musharraf has decreed that these two leaders will not be allowed to return, their parties are widely expected to win a fair poll. Pakistani voters seem inclined to forgive charges relating to patronage and receiving of kickbacks in an environment lacking sanctity of the constitution and rule of law. If plans to manipulate the electoral process in favour of the ‘King’s Party’ succeed, the new parliament will have little respect or credibility. If the opposition parties emerge as the major winners in the election despite all the maneuvers against them, it will be a major setback to Musharraf’s prestige.

Each period of military intervention has been accompanied by a warming up of relations with the United States, creating the widely held belief in Pakistan that the US prefers military dictators as its rulers. The Bush administration has also decided not to press for democratic reform in Pakistan in return for its support in the ‘‘war against terrorism’’. The State department only expressed muted concern about the prospect of Pakistani democracy the day after General Pervez Musharraf announced 29 arbitrary amendments to Pakistan’s constitution that give him absolute power. President Bush even praised General Musharraf for his support and played down any concerns about military dictatorship.

But US opinion makers point out that the US has suffered whenever it has reduced relations with nations to a personal relationship with an authoritarian ruler for the purpose of advancing an immediate strategic objective. For now, General Musharraf does not have a reputation for repression as did the Shah of Iran, nor is he reputed to be corrupt on the scale of the late Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. But the US has a history of deserting strategic allies. Depending on Washington, rather than the people of Pakistan, may not be the best recipe for political survival for a Pakistani ruler.

There is still a chance to break the past pattern and attempt a national concord that includes the military and politicians. If General Musharraf reaches out to the politicians, instead of locking himself into a fight-unto-death with them, the outcome could be better for him as well as for Pakistan. But it seems unlikely that he will.

Do Right By Pakistan

Asian Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2002

Even as it promises to topple the dictatorship of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration curiously appears to have decided not to press Pakistan on democratic reforms. The day after Gen. Pervez Musharraf announced 29 amendments to the country’s constitution, in effect giving him absolute power, the U.S. State Department only expressed muted concern. Yet those amendments amount to a virtual re-writing of Pakistan’s constitution by one man; in contrast, the American constitution has accumulated just 27 amendments in over two centuries.

That Washington should implicitly condone the disregard for democracy in Pakistan has implications for the Muslim world. While recent pronouncements by American leaders raised expectations among Muslim intellectuals of American action against the authoritarianism that marks political life in many Islamic countries, the U.S. refusal to speak out against Gen. Musharraf now dashes those hopes. Monarchs and dictators have been encouraged to believe that the U.S. does not mind their autocratic ways, so long as they fulfill specific American strategic goals.

Indeed, the prospect of an attack on Iraq, widely opposed in Arab and Muslim countries, makes it important for the U.S. to be clear and consistent about the values it claims to promote. Unlike other Islamic countries, Pakistan has a tradition of parliamentary democracy, however flawed. If the U.S. won’t bother nudging a nation with some history of representative government toward reinstating full democracy, how can it succeed in its democracy project in countries like Iraq? The promise to bring democracy to Baghdad rings hollow when the U.S. eschews even reproaching Pakistan.

According to U.S. President George W. Bush, Gen. Musharraf deserves praise for cooperating with the U.S. But identifying Gen. Musharraf, the man, rather than the Pakistani nation as America’s ally may prove a blunder. In the past, the U.S. has suffered whenever it reduced its ties with a nation to a personal relationship with its authoritarian ruler.

While such ties may advance an immediate strategic objective, they create greater problems down the road. Washington gave tacit support to Saddam when he fought Iran from 1980 to 1988. Saddam consolidated his position as Iraq’s ruler during those years. Similarly, U.S. support for Gen. Zia ul-Haq during the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan led to the rise of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, the U.S. is trying to undo through Gen. Musharraf what it inadvertently started under Gen. Zia.

Pakistan’s military leaders have used Islamists to weaken liberal politicians as well as to advocate a militarist foreign policy. Gen. Musharraf is no exception. He, too, is seeking the support of Islamist leaders to block the path of mainstream politicians ahead of October’s parliamentary elections. Recently, he met the head of Pakistan’s largest Islamic party and sought his support. Gen. Musharraf realizes the weakness of the alliance of minor ethnic and regional parties he is propping up against the major players led by former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. He would rather cut a deal with the Islamists than with the secular opposition. Yet such deals have backfired elsewhere, notably in Egypt where Islamists once were cultivated by the late President Anwar Sadat to contain the influence of leftists.

Military dictators have ruled Pakistan for over half its life. But with its tradition of at least some semblance of democracy going back to British colonial rule, it offers the best possibility of becoming a model democratic state in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the U.S. has done little to encourage this possibility. Each period of military rule has been accompanied by a warming of relations with the U.S., creating the impression in Pakistan that America prefers military dictators as Pakistan’s rulers.


Although Gen. Musharraf has decreed that Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif will not be allowed to return, their parties are widely expected to win in a fair election. Pakistanis appear inclined to forgive charges of patronage and accusations of kickbacks when faced with graver allegations against their current leadership and the present vacuum in the rule of law. Moreover, despite any weaknesses they may have, mainstream political parties in Pakistan reflect moderate and modernizing views. Thus, an elected civilian leader can be expected to oppose Islamic extremists out of a deep conviction rather than through expediency. This can only be good for U.S. interests in the region. On the other hand, the perception of U.S. support for a military-controlled polity could turn Pakistan’s civilian leaders against America. Anti-Musharraf politicians would be tempted to cooperate with his Islamic critics in protests that would likely be fueled by more than a dollop of anti-Americanism.

Conceivably, a case may be made for support of pro-American dictators in countries where the opposition is anti-American. But there is no excuse for Washington to prefer pro-American dictators over pro-American democrats. Instead of appearing to condone Gen. Musharraf’s disregard for democracy, the U.S. should be pressuring him to reconsider his arbitrary constitutional plans. Indeed, doing so would serve to advance the cause of democracy throughout the Islamic world. And that is no bad thing.

Tell Musharraf Democracy Has Priority

International Herald Tribune, September 4, 2002

A key ally of the United States in the war against terrorism, is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on Oct. 10. By current indications it is unlikely that the polls will be free or fair.

I am one of several hundred thousand eligible voters whose name has not been included in the electoral register. Ten million eligible voters have not been issued a national identity card, which registered voters must have. Such massive disenfranchisement is probably the result of bureaucratic incompetence, but it could also be part of a deliberate policy to contain the influence of the two major political parties led by former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

This past Sunday officials rejected two final nominations for Bhutto to run in the elections. Sharif’s nomination papers had earlier been accepted. But, in a demonstration of solidarity with Bhutto, he said that he would not be a candidate.

Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has made it clear that he will not allow the two former leaders to return to office. Several decrees have been issued to exclude Bhutto and Sharif from the election. Disenfranchising voters in districts considered their traditional strongholds could be an added precaution.

Musharraf, who assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has already amended the country’s constitution by decree. He appointed himself president after a one-sided referendum in April that was widely considered fraudulent. Now he is hoping to hold a strictly controlled election to a weak Parliament. Even after parliamentary elections, Musharraf and the military will retain effective control of key policy spheres through a military-dominated National Security Council.

For now, Musharraf appears firmly in control and wields effective power. The only reason he is going through the motions of democracy is to secure legitimacy that he lacks as a military ruler. The United States looked the other way over the fraud in the referendum. It should not do the same if the October elections fail to meet the standards of a free and fair poll.

Musharraf hopes to change the label on his military regime, redefining it as a democracy without altering its substance. That would leave the Bush administration dealing with him and the complexities of military-dominated politics in Pakistan. Having a military dictator in charge may be good for the current phase of the Afghan war, although even that is debatable. But it does not transform Pakistan into the stable ally that Washington is seeking.

The United States should publicly declare that it does not approve of Musharraf’s attempts to rewrite Pakistan’s constitution by decree. Such criticism would bolster the morale of Pakistan’s judiciary and political parties. It might force Musharraf to reconsider his arbitrary constitutional plans.

The United States owes him a debt of gratitude for his support in the war effort since Sept. 11. One way to repay this debt would be to advise him against self-destructive actions.

Although more than half of Pakistan’s life as an independent nation has been spent under military rule, military governments have never been able to achieve moral authority. A regime that draws power from the military, and not from a popular mandate, could be rendered ineffective at any stage. Pakistani democracy has a mixed track record. No elected leader in the country has been able to complete the term of office. Recent civilian prime ministers were removed through palace coups amid accusations of widespread corruption and incompetence.

The problem is partly linked to the pervasive role of the military in decision-making. Pakistan’s intelligence services play a behind-the-scenes role even when civilians are visibly in charge. Even now, covert efforts are afoot to support an alliance of minor parties to offset support for the major political groupings.

The Bush administration has been hesitant to criticize Musharraf publicly. But any impression that the United States supports a military-controlled polity will turn Pakistan’s civilian leaders against Washington. They would be tempted to cooperate with Musharraf’s Islamic critics in street protests that would probably be driven by anti-Americanism.

Instead of appearing to condone Musharraf’s disregard for democracy, Washington could impress upon him the destabilizing effect that civil-military divisions are having on Pakistan.

Two years ago, then President Bill Clinton told the Pakistani people: “Clearly the absence of democracy makes it harder, not easier, for people to move ahead. The answer to flawed democracy is not to end democracy but to improve it.” Instead of reversing that position, the Bush administration should make restoration of democracy in Pakistan its priority.

Greater U.S. activism in promoting democracy in Pakistan would help Pakistan achieve a degree of political maturity and stability. It would also help avoid the anti-American backlash that has characterized every round of close ties with Pakistan in the past. The credibility of the October elections will depend on the findings of international observers. The European Union and the Commonwealth will be sending observer missions. It is crucial that the poll monitors not limit themselves to officially guided tours.

They should examine and question the overall environment in which the elections are being held. Efforts to deny mainstream political parties and leaders the right to contest should not be condoned. If they are, Pakistan will end up with another ineffective civilian government under the shadow of a pervasive military.