Pakistan yearns for 60-year merry-go-round to stop

Sixty years old, Pakistan remains trapped in the same revolving door between civilian and military rule that it has known all its life.

Unstable, nuclear armed, regarded as a breeding ground for Islamist militancy and hiding place for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Pakistan is a country the West cannot take its eyes off.

Just days before the August 14 Independence Day celebration, Pakistan was again cast in limbo as President Pervez Musharraf, the fourth general to rule the country, went to the brink of invoking emergency powers, and then stepped back.

Had he gone ahead, Musharraf would have cited the internal threat of Islamist militancy. Most people, however, believe the real motive would have been to extend his eight-year rule.

Founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah dreamed of creating a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims to follow their faith in peace.

But peace is something Pakistan has seldom known since independence from Britain and the partition of India.

Fatima Sughra recalls the ideals she felt at 15, scaling the roof of the colonial administration headquarters in her hometown, Lahore, to pull down the Union Jack and hoist the flag of Jinnah’s Pakistan Muslim League. “We haven’t got the Pakistan that we were promised, that we dreamed of,” Fatimah, now a grandmother, laments, ruing a lack of Islamic values.

No leader, she says, has ever matched up to Jinnah, who died a year after the nation’s birth.

To his credit, Musharraf has forged a dialogue with India to usher in a “no war” phase between rivals who went nuclear in 1998, having already fought three wars since their split.

Critics say whatever good he’s done, a nation of 170-million people where two-thirds live on $2 a day, needs democracy.

“He has a saviour complex,” remarked Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to Pakistani leaders and now director of Boston University’s Centre for International Relations.

“He thinks he is the best thing that happened in Pakistan.
People who think like that are usually followed by a crisis.”

Cusp of change

Another period of emergency rule would have been par for the course in a country where a Supreme Court coined the phrase “doctrine of necessity” to justify the first coup in 1958, and condemned ousted Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to hang in 1979. Critics described that ruling as “judicial murder”.

Commentators often paraphrase Frederick the Great of Prussia, saying Pakistan is not a country with an army, but an army with a country.

“In my view ... demilitarisation of the Pakistani state and society is the way out,” says Afrasiab Khattak, Secretary General of Awami National Party (ANP), an ethnic Pashtun party based in the volatile North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Filled with insecurity since the humiliating defeat in 1971 by India, which led to the secession of East Pakistan and modern day Bangladesh, the army dreads a further break-up of the state.

This fear accounts for the brutality used against rebels in Baluchistan, a poor, thinly populated but mineral-rich province.

The 1970 election that precipitated the East Pakistan crisis was the only free election Pakistan has known. The others have been rigged by corrupt politicians or cynical security agencies.

Yet, Pakistanis’ yearning for democracy reflects a South Asian heritage that sets them apart from Middle East autocracies.

Television news channels, which have blossomed during the Musharraf era, have raised awareness and laid bare lies.

A huge source of hope was the Supreme Court’s move in July to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a judge who became a symbol of resistance by defying Musharraf’s pressure to quit.

“We need to make further steps towards constitutional order,” said political analyst Nasim Zehra. “The first step was the chief justice’s case, the second should be free and fair elections.”

Comes around, goes around

Nowadays, the greatest threat to Pakistan is internal.

Suicide bomb attacks in mosques, on security forces, and government leaders have become commonplace. Religious schools run armed militias. Fiercely independent Pashtun tribesmen on the Afghan border have joined the cause of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Since early July, more than 300 people have died in bomb attacks, in clashes with militants and in an army assault on Islamabad’s Red Mosque to crush a Taliban-style movement. The army is struggling to keep a lid on militancy and secessionists in NWFP and Baluchistan, and allegations of human rights violations are rife.

“The situation is very bad,” said Naeem Ashraf Kiani, a spiky-haired student in a MacDonald’s restaurant at a park near army headquarters in Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was hung 28 years ago. “There is insecurity. As soon as we leave home, our parents start calling to check we’re okay.”

In desperation, Musharraf is mulling sharing power with Benazir Bhutto, which could see the two-time prime minister return from exile to tap her dead father’s populist vote bank.

Hardly an alliance made in heaven, it still would be a coming together of progressive moderates, and will support conspiracy theories that the United States is pulling the strings.

Over the last 60 years, Pakistan’s relationship with Washington has been on-off, at times favoured as a Cold War ally and now a friend in the war on terrorism.

Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its role in the covert war financed by the US and Saudi Arabia to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Islamist militant groups patronised by the army became a hydra-headed political problem that eventually rallied to al-Qaeda’s cause.

The US now fears that the longer democracy remains stalled, the greater the risk that Pakistan will slip into the thrall of political mullahs and religious extremism.

“I’m not pessimistic,” said Sughra, the old woman clinging to the hopes of 1947. “After the struggles and hardships we’ve been through for this country, I pray to Allah. He should protect it.”—Reuters

Client Media Releases