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The Battle Lines in Pakistan

The Battle Lines in Pakistan

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

If you look at it as a battle between individual leaders and parties, the battle lines cannot be more blurred. The lines have been changing frequently, leaving everyone wondering who is fighting whom in Pakistan. If you look at it as a battle between the people and a system, of which Pervez Musharraf is a current symbol but not the sole synonym, the lines cannot be clearer.

The former set of battle lines, of course, have been changing with breathtaking frequency for over a year now. All through 2006, General Musharraf was ruling out the possibility of his relenting in any way toward the two exiled former prime Ministers. He was categorical that neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif could ever be allowed to contest a general election as the constitution (now suspended) barred them from doing so in view of the corruption cases against them. Bhutto and Sharif responded by apparently burying the political hatchet and signing a Charter of Democracy in London in May 2006.

Those who saw the document as drawing the battle lines were to be disillusioned soon. The different homecomings of the duo - with the none too hidden hand of Washington behind - left no doubt about the lines the leader of the "alliance against global terror" wanted drawn. Sharif took seriously an order allowing his return from Pakistan's Supreme Court (soon to be cut to size), flew into the country on September 10 and was flown back without undue fuss to his palatial prison in Saudi Arabia. Bhutto returned to a far better official reception on October 18, and has stayed put so far.

With a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) giving Bhutto amnesty from the corruption cases, new battle lines appeared to have emerged. A Musharraf-Bhutto alliance was reported to have shaped up (though this seemed as unlikely, to old Pakistan-watchers, as a Bush-Clinton electoral entente). A troika - consisting of the general, the charismatic lady and army chief-designate Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani - was seen as the preordained triumph of the discreetly controlled "democratic process" underway.

Much water has flowed down the Sindh since then. Bhutto, greeted with a blast that killed about 140 of her deliriously joyous and dancing supporters hours after her return, has now dropped a bombshell of her own. A few days in Pakistan, and the leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has discovered the unpopularity of any deal with Musharraf. Besides calling on him to lift the martial law, she has ruled out serving as the prime minister with Musharraf as the president.

Only days ago, she seemed isolated within the opposition camp. Sharif, as the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) or the PML (N), had rejected the idea of talks with her unless she suspended negotiations with Musharraf. Imran Khan, former cricketing hero and founder of Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), had scoffed at her "shadow boxing" with Musharraf. Neither Sharif nor Khan has now reacted negatively to her call for opposition unity, though the three have yet to meet and tackle persisting differences.

All three are agreed on calling for a boycott of the general election scheduled for January 8, if the martial law is not lifted soon enough. Whether they will also agree on other conditions for participation in the elections remains to be seen. A more serious sticking point is the demand for reinstatement of the sacked judges of the Supreme Court, voiced by Sharif, Khan, and the civil society but, significantly, not by Bhutto so far.

By apparently opting out of an alliance with Musharraf, meanwhile, Bhutto may have brought the other ex-prime minister into Washington's extended plans. We had talked of a possible role for Sharif, a bird in the gilded cage of Bush-friendly Jeddah for years now, in such plans (The Importance of Being Nawaz Sharif, November 14, 2007). Right now, Musharraf is in Saudi Arabia on a two-day visit during which he will reportedly try to make contact with Sharif.

Washington has built and tried to peddle a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance as one of "moderation" against "extremism." This definition of the battle lines has elicited derisive rejection from Pakistan's civil society, now backed by masses in the streets, that sees the confrontation as one between democracy and dictatorship.

The rejection comes also from Pakistanis who consider extremism a mortal enemy of the country. Eminent scientist and peace activist Pervez Hoodboy, who has campaigned against extremism at the risk of more than his popularity, has no doubt fundamentalism cannot be fought by a deal with Musharraf.

Hoodboy points to Musharraf's dismal failure to stem the growth of "Islamist insurgency" after eight years of military rule. Hoodboy asks, "Why has Musharraf failed so dramatically to stop the insurgency? One reason is that most of the public is hostile to government action against the extremists (and the rest offer tepid support at best). Most Pakistanis see the militants as America's enemy, not their own. The Taliban is perceived as the only group standing up against the unwelcome American presence in the region."

"If Pakistan is to fight and win the war against the Taliban," says Hoodboy, "it will need to mobilize both its people and the state. Musharraf's recent declaration of emergency will only make this much harder." Millions of Pakistanis will agree with him when he says, "Only a freely chosen and representative government can win public support for taking on the Taliban."

Democracy of Hoodboy's and other's dreams and desires will not win merely because Bhutto or Sharif wins at the hustings. This is because of the very special place of the military in the life and system of Pakistan. It is no secret that successive prime ministers and other politicians have strengthened the military's extraordinary and extra-constitutional authority by their servility. By cultivating close and illicit relations with the military as a recognized and accepted route to power, they have tacitly made it the power behind the throne.

The old joke, "every country has its army but, in Pakistan, the army has a country," has become a painful one, and not only to the dismissed judges. To the military's links with the political establishment have been added its connections with the extremists. The armed forces' all-pervasive influence rests also on an economic empire, as Ayesha Siddiqa establishes in her authoritative work, aptly titled, "Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy."

By forcing Musharraf to doff his uniform alone, Pakistan cannot be saved from the fate of recurring military dictatorships, resulting from a system invested with false sanctity. The battle lines need to be drawn between political forces that want basic changes in this system and those that prefer the status quo despite their pro-democracy pretensions.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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