A year ago Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf commanded a growing economy, international support and a docile political opposition. There were squalls – a separatist insurgency in Baluchistan, a Taliban redoubt on the border with Afghanistan – but these were on the outer limits of the state, remote from Islamabad, the sanitised, whitewashed capital. For a procession of US envoys, Musharraf’s Pakistan was the epitome of a moderate Muslim nation in transition to democracy. It was almost a light in a landscape darkened by Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today Pakistan is stricken by its fifth bout of martial law in five decades. Political and civic dissidents are in jail, the judiciary has been purged and a relatively free media muzzled. What tipped Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” into repression? There were two overlapping crises. One was an inevitable clash between eight years of military rule and a restive civil society, spearheaded by an independent judiciary. The other was a native, Talibanised insurgency, arching from the Afghan borderlands to settled districts like Swat in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), just 300km from the capital.
But the cause of the fall – and the link between the crises – is the institution that has ruled Pakistan directly for most of its existence and indirectly for the rest. The Pakistani army commands 600,000 men and women and perhaps 50 nuclear warheads. Under Musharraf’s tutelage, it has become a leviathan: worth $20bn in assets, controlling a third of all heavy manufacturing and owning 12m acres of land. Hundreds of military officers have civilian jobs in ministries and state corporations. Deeply politicised intelligence agencies fix elections (which has long been their prerogative), and build and un-build coalitions for the “president”.
The fact that Musharraf stood down as army chief of staff, became a “civilian” president on 29 November and promised to lift martial law on 16 December does not change this reality; the aim, rather, is to sanctify it. “We used to say ‘army back to barracks’. I’m not sure it’s possible any more,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, the best account of the burgeoning military empire (see “Soldiers of good fortune”). But Pakistanis – rich, poor, urban, rural, “moderate”, “extremist” – want the army to return to barracks. That is why there is a crisis.
Popular rejection of military rule can be dated with precision. On 9 March Musharraf, in uniform and surrounded by intelligence heads, sacked Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The ostensible charge was misconduct. The reality was that he challenged the army’s illegal acquisition of state power.
Chaudhry had issued decrees that struck at the heart of Military Inc. He ruled illegal a privatisation policy that sold off state assets cheaply to former army officers and their lackeys in Pakistan’s business elite. He tried manfully to hold accountable Pakistan’s ghostly intelligence agencies, especially the army’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) directorate.
For the previous six years, ever since Musharraf switched sides in the “war on terror”, the ISI had “disappeared” hundreds of Pakistanis. This was said to be because of their ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban, and in return for bounty from the CIA, a lucrative trade confirmed by Musharraf in his autobiography In The Line Of Fire (Simon & Schuster, London, 2006). In fact many of these “disappeared” had nothing to do with militancy. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) confirmed that those held were mainly “journalists, Baluch or Sindh nationalists, workers and labour activists”; “they were regime dissidents, not jihadists,” said HRCP chairperson Asma Jahangir.
Chaudhry also made clear that Musharraf could not constitutionally retain his dual position of president and army chief beyond the expiry of his term on 15 November. “That’s why he was sacked,” said a government insider.
It turned out to be the blunder of Musharraf’s political life. In a wholly unforeseen reaction, lawyers took to the streets in protest, buoyed by a resurgent civil society, assertive judiciary and campaigning media. Raised by this tide, a reinvigorated Supreme Court restored the chief justice on 20 July. For most Pakistanis it was the first time the judiciary had looked at the army and not blinked. Musharraf retreated, stunned.
“The lawyers’ movement was a remarkable event,” said political scientist Rasul Baksh Rais. “It was non-violent, it was popular and it echoed the sentiments of the middle classes and the other new classes forged by modernisation: that we need the rule of law.” But it also exposed the venality of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties, particularly the largest, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the ex-prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
She had been in self-exile since 1999, fleeing a number of corruption cases arising from her two stints in government. She viewed the lawyers’ movement through the prism of her own rehabilitation. Aware that it had exposed the frailty of military rule in Pakistan, she offered to save Musharraf on behalf of the army and the US. In return for an amnesty and a third try at the premiership, she broke an all-party alliance against the army’s involvement in politics and pledged the PPP to back another five-year Musharraf presidency. The only political condition was that Musharraf should remove his uniform.
The United States wrote the script, convinced that Bhutto and the PPP could somehow deliver to Musharraf and the army the civilian legitimacy they lacked. The tryst dissolved when it became clear that the Supreme Court would probably rule unconstitutional Musharraf’s “election” as president on 6 October. For the second time in eight years Musharraf slammed martial law on Pakistan, casting his deal with Bhutto to the wind.
This January female seminary students occupied a public library in protest at government plans to demolish a part of their madrasa in Islamabad’s Red Mosque compound. Over six months that struggle headed an Islamic challenge to the state, right next door to the presidency and ISI headquarters and an hour’s drive from Kohatu, the site of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. DVDs and CDs were seized and destroyed, brothels raided and sharia law proclaimed. The mini-uprising ended in July when commandos recaptured the mosque after a siege lasting six days; 100 people were killed.
The Red Mosque takeover was unique only in that it happened on Islamabad’s mulberry-lined avenues and before the world’s media. In its attempted projection of Islamic rule it mirrored a strategy applied right across the Pashtun belt in the NWFP and Afghan borderlands. The strategy is Talibanisation and the forces behind it are Islamic militants like those who fought at the Red Mosque. The leaders were clerics, inspired by Osama bin Laden but schooled in the Sunni sectarian madrasas nurtured under the Islamist and pro-US dictatorship of Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988); 70% of the students, male and female, were from the NWFP and border areas, raised on a toxic mix of tribalism, Pashtun grievance and a Talibanised Islam.
The fighters were from banned jihadist militia like Jaish Mohammed (JM). Once employed by the ISI to fight Pakistan’s proxy wars in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir, they saw Musharraf’s post 9/11 abandonment of the Taliban and advocacy of peace with Delhi as apostasy. If anybody had links with al-Qaida and/or rogue ISI officers, it would be these jihadists, say sources.
But what do they want? The aims of Pakistan’s Islamic militants are as diverse as their composition. The Taliban’s priority appears to be to preserve the tribal areas as a base for the insurgency in Afghanistan. The tactic of radiating out from there, even as far as Islamabad, has as much to do with deterrence as conquest. “The Taliban invades the settled areas because the army and Nato invades the tribal areas. If the armies withdrew, so would they,” said a contact with ties to the Pakistan Taliban leadership.
The aim of JM and foreign fighters, such as Uzbek Islamists, with links to al-Qaida may be more ambitious. They seem to want to carve out territorial enclaves within Pakistan that are off-limits to the army and stretch all the way from the tribal areas to Indian Kashmir. “It’s a policy of establishing small independent emirates,” said one veteran jihadist.
Clerics like the Red Mosque’s Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Swat’s Maulana Fazlullah proselytize a violent sharia in the conviction that “the Islamic system takes action wherever the state fails”. But it’s the Taliban and fighters that give them the firepower to preach.
Hostility to the army