Reckless run

22 November 2007
Musharraf’s assaults on freedom, state institutions and political parties amidst a rise in fundamentalist activity spell a grave new situation in Pakistan.
GENERAL Pervez Musharraf’s increasingly reckless actions since the November 3 imposition of martial law, euphemistically called “emergency”, have plunged Pakistan into an unprecedented crisis, which is spinning out of control. He has gutted the Supreme Court, arrested thousands of lawyers, and crippled political activity. He has also hobbled the electronic media, closing 58 privately owned television channels; ordered the trial of civilians by military tr ibunals; and unleashed coercion against human rights activists, journalists, feminists, artists, trade unionists and other members of civil society groups. In the process, Musharraf is closing avenue after avenue, which could lead to an amelioration of the crisis of governability in which Pakistan finds itself. By putting Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest and sabotaging her planned “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad, he risks destroying the last possibility of creating a fig leaf of legitimacy for his rule. Benazir Bhutto, of course, is no independent or credible civilian leader. Rather, she is a deeply compromised politician and a nominee of the United States, which brokered a power-sharing deal between her and the General. Yet, Benazir Bhutto has been forced to take a defiant position and demand, for the first time since her recent visit to Pakistan, that Musharraf step down. Soon, it might become too late for Musharraf to put together even a rag-tag arrangement that passes for a government — whether or not national elections are held by January 9, as promised. There are persistent doubts within Pakistan about the degree of support Musharraf’s actions command within its establishment, including the military. The Washington Post recently quoted Mushahid Hussain Syed, a close adviser to Musharraf and secretary-general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q), as saying that he had “repeatedly tried to persuade the President against the measures”, but was “outvoted in Musharraf’s inner circle”. According to Mushahid Hussain, says The Washington Post, Musharraf convened a meeting of his top advisers to discuss options before imposing the “emergency”; “20 of 25 were in favour of emergency rule”; “Hussain predicted that the moves would be disastrous for Musharraf and for the country”. He said: “The way forward has to be democratic and constitutional. Any other course is a recipe for disaster. More importantly, it will not be accepted by the people of Pakistan and it will not work.” Whether Mushahid Hussain’s commitment to democracy is sincere or not is irrelevant. What matters is that he chose to air his gloomy assessment of Musharraf’s decision. Mushahid Hussain has an uncanny knack of sensing which side is winning and which is losing. As serious as, if not graver than, the political crisis is the rise in the incidence of extremism and terrorism all over Pakistan since the storming of the Lal Masjid in July. According to the latest official military briefing, more than 600 security personnel and 1,300 civilians have been killed in 28 suicide attacks since then. Security personnel were ambushed at least 192 times, and there were 39 bomb blasts, besides the suicide attacks. Since 2001, at least 966 military men have been killed and 2,259 injured; 488 “foreign extremists” have been killed and 24 others arrested. Armed militias Even more alarming is the rapid spread of armed fundamentalist militias, which are overrunning parts of the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) such as North and South Waziristan, Bajaur and, most recently, Swat district, which until some months ago was free of jehadi militancy. In Swat, militants recently launched a second assault on a historic rock statue of the Buddha, in a repeat of the Bamiyan outrage in Afghanistan. They have imposed the shariat, torn down Pakistani flags flying over government buildings and replaced them with religious banners, and disarmed and disbanded units of the Frontier Constabulary. Their growth can be largely attributed to Musharraf’s inept and half-hearted handling of anti-extremist operations, coupled with his strategy of cutting unviable deals with pro-Taliban forces. Musharraf has received $11 billion in assistance from the U.S. since September 2001 as part of its Global War on Terrorism (GWoT), besides unaccounted-for millions for special “renditions” of over 350 suspects for Guantanamo-style interrogations. But he has obviously been unwilling and/or unable to mop up the core of the militant groups, including the infamous “Mullah Radio”. It is not lack of military powers, or judicial constraints on their exercise, that has hobbled the fight against the pro-Taliban fundamentalists. The real constraint lies in the demoralisation of Pakistan’s security forces, their high casualty rates and rising desertions, currently estimated at more than 150. Such desertions are believed to have occurred for the first time since the Bangladesh War. Besides, paramilitary units such as the Frontier Corps, recruited from the tribal population, lack the will to fight their own brothers. In August, pro-Taliban militants kidnapped 247 Pakistani soldiers, a majority of whom were released recently in exchange for 25 extremists. As America’s GWoT spills over into FATA, the Durand Line – artificially drawn by the British in 1893 to run through the Pashtun belt, and not accepted by the Afghan government or by the Pashtuns – is under serious threat. Musharraf has no strategy to meet that threat. But over 100,000 Pakistani troops are deployed in that region. Meanwhile, the U.S. is threatening to send troops in pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban elements, which have found a sanctuary there. The threat to Pakistan’s control over its volatile tribal frontiers has arisen because the GWoT has gone haywire in Afghanistan and Musharraf’s strategy of fighting pro-Taliban forces has proved bankrupt. The U.S. may yet add to these complications by replicating in Pakistan’s border regions the disastrous policies it pursues in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. put all its eggs in the Musharraf basket in the fond hope that he would greatly help the GWoT by arresting and eliminating jehadis and, secondly, that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would remain secure under him. Now even the second proposition is proving dubious. According to U.S. media reports, American nuclear experts have only “limited knowledge” of the locations of the “half-dozen or so bunkers where the components of its arsenal of about 50 nuclear weapons are stored”. The Washington Post quotes a former U.S. official involved in monitoring the Pakistani nuclear programme as saying: “We can’t say with absolute certainty that we know where they all are”; if the U.S. were to make an attempt to seize the weapons to prevent their transfer into unauthorised hands, “it could be very messy”. Nuclear threat Given Pakistan’s political instability, the history of Dr. A.Q. Khan’s “nuclear Wal-Mart” operation, and Washington’s own preoccupation with counter-terrorism, the George W. Bush administration, says The Washington Post, worries less that “Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might be used in a horrific war with India than that it could become a security threat to the U.S. homeland in the event of any theft or diversion to terrorist groups.” The U.S. reportedly has even drawn up contingency plans to prevent such theft. India cannot afford to take such a narrow and parochial view of the mass-destruction arsenal next door, with scores of missiles ready to hit Indian cities with atomic bombs within minutes. This raises serious questions about the complacency and smugness that prevails in the Indian security establishment about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. It also calls into question the wisdom of the view that nuclear weapons would promote “stability” and even “maturity” in the subcontinent – an utterly dubious proposition advanced by our pro-bomb lobby since 1998. A much broader issue is involved here. Indian policymakers have all too easily assumed that Musharraf is the best guarantee of both stability in Pakistan and continuity in the peace process with India. In the evolving situation, however, the very opposite may be true. On the long view, India has a big stake in a robustly democratic Pakistan in which civilian rulers prevail over the military and its covert agencies. True, India is today diplomatically constrained from spelling out its preferences for fear that this would be interpreted as interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and would give a handle to the military regime. However, that should not stop India from working discreetly with different states, including the U.S., China and major European Union members, to persuade them to mount pressure on Musharraf in favour of lifting martial law and holding credibly free and fair elections with the full participation of all political parties. Indian diplomats could do this – with a little imagination, backed by firm political will. Regrettably, both these seem to be scarce.