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India, China & Asia

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Pakistan: The Army Won’t Return to Barracks
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Pervez Musharraf wants to impose an authoritarian presidential system on Pakistan in which the army preserves the dominant role. His people want a civilian government and the rule of law. That – not Islamic militancy – is the crux of the crisis in Pakistan.

5th Dec 07 - Graham Usher, Le Monde Diplomatique

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.

Civil society

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.

Islamic militancy

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

What clenches all these fingers into a fist is hostility to the army. Military analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said this was new: “The militants define Musharraf the same way they define [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai: as an agent of America. What’s different is that they see the army the same way. Previously there was a kind of understanding. The militants were given some autonomy for not attacking Pakistan. But now they are taking on the army within Pakistan.”

Since the Red Mosque seige, 600 people have been killed, including 200 soldiers, mostly in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, through Iraqi-style suicide bombings, and roadside and rocket ambushes. In the past common soldiers would have endured the worst of this, but now the despised officer class is being attacked too. On 4 September and again on 24 November, suicide bombers killed more than 35 ISI officers on buses in Rawalpindi, the main garrison town. On 13 September, 20 Special Services Group (SSG) commandos were blown up while breakfasting in the officers’ mess. The SSG executed the Red Mosque raid. The ISI was seen as the brain behind it. The militants have turned on their makers.

And so has much of the public. In the Pashtun areas there was almost satisfaction at the attacks. There is a feeling that the army is at war with its own people, in the tribal areas or Islamabad, in the pay of the US. Officers in Peshawar and other frontier cities are told it’s better not to go out in uniform. “We’ve never been so hated,” said a retired general.

This has had consequences. One is demoralisation. On 30 August Pakistani Taliban tribesmen took nearly 300 soldiers hostage. Officially the army said they were captured. Unofficially, the message was that the soldiers had surrendered without firing a shot. Siddiqa said this could be a sign of worse to come. “The nightmare has always been that Islamist generals mount a coup and somehow get hold of Pakistan’s nukes. But this is far fetched. A more likely scenario is what we are witnessing today – cracks in the army where soldiers simply refuse to obey orders. They resist what is widely seen as America’s war by deserting or going over to the other side.”

Another consequence is “collateral damage”. On 20 November the army announced it was mobilising 20,000 troops to remove Fazlullah and perhaps 500 militants from Swat. This will mean bombing, civilian flight and deaths. The army resorts to such blunt knives for the same reasons as US and Nato soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – because it’s scared and hopeless at counterinsurgency. Journalist Rahimullah Yousefzai said such punitive policies are counterproductive. “All it does is drive people to the Taliban.”

Military rule

Musharraf is using martial law to complete a new presidential system in Pakistan, modelled more on the authoritarian Arab regimes to Pakistan’s west than on India’s chaotic but functional democracy to the east. Musharraf contrasts this “real democracy” with the “sham democracy” of a parliamentary system. But it’s a military dictatorship in all but name, in the same mould as Zia-ul-Haq, Mubarak and other pro-US juntas.

Martial law has only confirmed that such a regime cannot coexist with an independent judiciary, a free media and fair elections. Musharraf has appointed caretaker governments packed with cronies to ensure the polls on 8 January are as rigged as they were in 2002. He has sacked most High Court judges and installed a new militarised legal system that allows officers to try civilians for treason. And he has decreed that all decisions taken by him during the “emergency” are inherently valid and cannot be contested by any court of law or other forum.

But no number of military decrees will resolve the crisis of legitimacy that assails the Pakistani state. And they do nothing for the struggle against Islamic militancy other than render it more illegal and, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, more illegitimate. Can the order be resisted? Some see hope in civil society and a nascent student movement that has taken to the streets for the first time since 1968. But there are immense obstacles, not least the West’s enormous political and economic backing of Musharraf. The US contributes about $1bn a year, 90% of it in military aid.

But it’s not only aid that needs revision, Rais believes. “The West’s primary interest in Pakistan is defeating militant Islamic forces,” he said. “We too would like to defeat them. But I don’t believe you can do so by strengthening the armed forces as an institution that is also responsible for political governance.

“In Muslim societies, where religion is part of the social fabric, you cannot use strong-arm tactics to deny Islamists political opportunities. They will only come back with greater vigour and legitimacy. They have to be defeated by democracy and constitutionalism.”

This means the army has to return to its constitutional role as defender, rather than arbiter, of the state. It also means mainstream parties should resolve their differences politically rather than by recourse to the army, as so often in the past. But, short of mass agitation and international sanctions, it is difficult to see the army loosening its grip on the state. And, as Bhutto’s fling with Musharraf demonstrated, Pakistan’s political culture is still feudal rather than democratic. “A basic feature of feudalism is that power is important. Principles are not,” said Rais. This “makes for the death of politics other than those managed by the military,” said Siddiqa. And that is dangerous. “It leads to popular contempt, and contempt will find other outlets.”

After martial law, Islamic militants took over much of the scenic valley of Swat. Black and white Taliban flags were hoisted over government buildings. Thousands of civilians fled and those who stayed did not welcome the austere, retrograde Islam they were about to endure. But the police had gone, local government had fallen and local leaders had run to Islamabad. The militants brought cash, protection and a parallel system of justice. “In the absence of any justice, the roughest will do,” said Siddiqa. This is how Talibanisation prevails, as it did in Afghanistan: not in contest with the state but through the state’s failure.

In Pakistan the cause of failure is not Islamic militancy, an irresponsible media or an overactive judiciary. It is the political dominance of the institution the West remains convinced holds the country together – the army.

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