On May 8, a bomb blast rocked central Karachi, killing at least 14 people, including a number of French nationals. This suicide bombing comes on the heels of the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, allegedly by Islamist extremist groups who had recently fallen out of the favor of the Pakistani military government. Similar explosions have hit churches and other places of worship around the country this spring. In Karachi, Shia professionals have been assassinated in escalating sectarian violence that has gripped the larger cities of Pakistan.

Some have argued that elements within the Pakistani security services are still involved in assisting the perpetrators of these attacks. The guilty parties would be those elements of the state security apparatus who have been left out in the cold by Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s regime. The military junta, in contrast, blames these incidents on outside influences seeking to destabilize Pakistan. Eight months after the September 11 tragedy, the regime seeks to portray Pakistan as a changed polity.

Army Democracy

On April 30, a referendum extended Musharraf’s presidency for five years. As with a similar exercise conducted by the dictator Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, popular participation in the referendum was dismal—estimates variously say that 6 to 30 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls. Accurate assessments of turnout were impossible due to widespread double voting and other fraud. Yet the semblance of an electoral process allowed the military junta to ascribe a democratic legitimacy to the current episode of army rule in Pakistan.

Although much criticism of Musharraf was levied by sections of the Pakistani press and the political opposition, international condemnation of the referendum farce was muted. The US preferred not to take a position at all. “It’s for the Pakistani people to judge what the referendum means in terms of returning the country to democratic civilian rule,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, adding that US hopes for greater democracy in Pakistan are pinned to October’s planned parliamentary contests. Boucher’s noncommittal stance came as no surprise. As long as Musharraf’s regime allows US and allied troops to use Pakistani territory for the remainder of the US war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan’s internal politics will remain secondary to the larger geopolitical goals of its most important ally.

Political Theater

The Taliban and al-Qaeda owe their existence, in part, to past machinations of the Pakistani military in fomenting radical Islam. Today Musharraf and his fellow generals, acutely sensitive to their international portrayal, have cynically used their newfound status as darlings of the Western press to project a distinctly secular image. In a major address to the nation (and the world) in January 2002, Musharraf promised to curtail the activities of extremist groups and to reform the madrassas (Islamic schools) that infamously graduated many of the Taliban. He positioned himself as a moderate Muslim ruler who had heeded the wishes of the silent majority in Pakistan that opposes extremism and fanatical Islam. His desire to rid Pakistan of extremist elements was affirmed when he invoked the secular, modernist father of the Pakistani nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah, a British-trained lawyer from a minority Muslim sect, successfully led Indian Muslims in their struggle to establish an independent Pakistan. His speeches and writings emphasize a vision of a secular, democratic and modern national entity populated primarily by Muslims, but providing equal citizenship rights to all religious groups that lived within its boundaries. Musharraf seeks to wrap himself in this vision of a modern, moderate and Muslim Pakistan.

For a military man who came to power through a coup and who was essentially committed to the Pakistani military’s involvement in Afghanistan and to its incursions into Indian-held Kashmir, the January speech was indeed a major policy change. While the rest of the world praised Musharraf for his brave decision, Pakistanis themselves knew that they may have been witnessing another performance in the country’s ongoing political theater, directed and produced by the military’s General Headquarters Central. The military now seeks to distance itself from the very forces it helped to create—which are violently resisting the regime’s attempts to don new political garb. In the eyes of the Pakistani population, the Pakistani military leadership is simply trying to rehabilitate itself, just as it needed to work its way out of another major crisis of legitimacy in 1971.

Tale of Two Bhuttos

After embroiling the country in a brutal civil war, in December of 1971 the Pakistani army surrendered to Indian forces in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. As a result of the subsequent division of the country, the disgraced military finally handed over power to the civilian administration of Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto after 13 years of governance. Musharraf has drawn an analogy between that national turmoil and the present crisis in the region. In so doing, he has underscored the relevance of 1971 for Pakistan’s more recent history. The Pakistani military has again brought the country to a political crisis due to its failed adventures in neighboring states.

Perhaps the post-September 11 political crisis reminded Musharraf of 1971 because of the scenario in which former president Benazir Bhutto would follow in her father’s footsteps to lead Pakistan again. Musharraf may have thought this possibility could become a reality if the US and European states remained jittery about Pakistan’s nuclear warheads falling into the wrong hands, as they remained suspicious of Pakistan’s security agencies’ strong ties to radical Islamist groups. If Bhutto played her cards well, she could become the consensus choice for the West. Moreover, her unqualified support for the military’s post-September 11 policies assured some within the military that she was not a threat to its political authority, social influence and budgetary demands. She could, like her father who re-established and reaffirmed the military’s authority, become the civilian face for behind-the-scenes military influence. Musharraf’s embrace of secularism has enabled him, at least for the time being, to outfox Bhutto in her attempts to regain power. In the international arena, he is now considered trustworthy, as evidenced by his invitation to the White House in February.

But Musharraf’s analogy to the 1971 crisis is limited. In 1971 the threat to the state structure emanated primarily from the left. The long rule of the military, with its deep links to industrial and feudal interests, had led to a popular mobilization that demanded democratic reform, economic redistribution, social justice and rights for ethnic minorities. Now the threat to the governing junta comes from the more militant Islamist forces—themselves the product of a longer legacy of military rule in Pakistan, ironically enough.

Afghanistan and Pakistani Politics

Since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan had been strained due to boundary disputes and the feared spillage of ethnic Pashtun nationalism across the common border. Afghan rulers disputed the nineteenth-century division of Pashtun-dominated areas by the British colonial authorities. The Durand Line, the boundary between colonial India and Afghanistan, was inherited by Pakistan as its own border with the neighboring state. Successive Afghan governments were supportive of nationalist Pashtun movements that called for regional autonomy or independence from Pakistan. These struggles were a source of anxiety to the centralizing Pakistani state. With openly hostile India on their eastern flank, Pakistani military strategists had regarded their not-so-friendly western neighbor with suspicion. Tensions were aggravated by the communist-led coup in Afghanistan in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. The US-backed resistance to the pro-Soviet Afghan regime guaranteed, at least in the minds of the Pakistani military leaders, a somewhat concrete resolution of their Afghan problem.

How the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the area bordering Afghanistan and having a majority Pashtun population, went from being a hub of nationalist and leftist politics to a region now identified with radical Islamic movements is still an unwritten part of Pakistani history. Pakistan’s support for Pashtun groups may partly be a result of geography, since Pashtun areas in southern Afghanistan are contiguous with the Pakistani border and kinship ties cross the boundary. The Pakistani security agencies, charged with running a covert war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, were successful in turning these ethnic bonds into bonds of Islamic resistance. In the last two decades, the Pakistani state has used Islamic symbols and political discourse successfully to diffuse a progressive, nationalistic and at times separatist movement within its borders.

The present incursion of Pakistani regulars, along with US Special Forces, into the tribal belt of northwestern Pakistan is an unprecedented twist. Under the pretext of pursuing fleeing al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, the Pakistani state is able to assert direct authority over a space that previously it governed through intermediaries and the consent of the tribal leadership. Since the long Afghan war in the 1980s, these areas have also been a conduit for the drug trade and covert arms deals. As much as the Pakistani military and bureaucratic elite has benefited from the drug and arms trade, today the Pakistani state—under immense pressure from the US—finds itself in direct confrontation with the semi-autonomous ruling cliques of the NWFP. Pakistanis may be subjected to more random acts of violence, like the Karachi car bombing, that may be a direct result of the military’s incursions into the tribal belt.

Dangerous Game

In addition to its intervention to nurture a Pakistan-friendly regime in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military has long encouraged armed resistance against India in Kashmir. These interlinked policies guaranteed the military’s high demands on the national budget, and provided the ideological justification for the growth and consolidation of the army’s role in Pakistan’s social and political life.

Even after its about-face on the Taliban after September 11, the Pakistani military continued to think it could intervene in Kashmir. However, the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament may drastically limit Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri separatists. India, with or without proof of official Pakistani involvement, pointed to the pattern of support that the Pakistani military had offered to armed groups which targeted civilians. Pakistan failed initially to understand the emerging atmosphere of zero tolerance toward any form of terrorist activity after September 11. In contrast, the Indian government, taking its cue from the US, pushed hard to win the international public relations war, if not the hearts and minds of Kashmiri Muslims.

India has threatened Pakistan with dire consequences for the attack on Parliament. It is the return of 1971, this time in reverse. The neighbors, now armed with nuclear arsenals, remain involved in a game of dangerous brinkmanship.

Pakistani civilian governments in the last decade have been unable to influence the policy on Kashmir (or on Afghanistan). That has been the purview of the military, which has periodically sabotaged any movement toward a negotiated settlement. Yet civilian governments, along with their rampant corruption, have neglected issues of democratic governance, economic distribution and social needs. Within this context, the military has portrayed itself as the stable social institution that can save Pakistan from its corrupt and inept civilian representatives. Yet the peculiar impasse that Pakistan faces over both homegrown Islamist militants and Kashmir is entirely the military’s responsibility.

A Pakistani Ataturk

The Pakistani military understands this charge at a fundamental level. Musharraf’s speech in January was intended to reduce international pressure on his government, and to polish the tarnished image of the Pakistani military among Pakistanis themselves. The military remains the largest and most organized political group in Pakistani society. As much as it nurtures its constituency through sophisticated use of the national media, it is also cognizant of the social, economic and political implications of its long-term policies. To continue to rule, the army knows, it needs to recast the recent past as an aberration in popular memory, and play the liberal secular card. The liberal intelligentsia in Pakistan has heaved a sigh of relief at this turn of events. Long the target of Islamist attacks, sometimes instigated by the state security apparatus itself, liberals are now circling their wagons around Musharraf, seeing him as the savior who will release the country from the Islamists’ grip. In their unrestrained enthusiasm they perhaps forget the military’s capability to manipulate history. Musharraf is willing to hold elections for Parliament in October, but the referendum has ensured that he will be head of state for another five years. The military will not risk civilian scrutiny until it can guarantee the continuation of its own entrenched power in Pakistani society.

The Pakistani liberal media has compared Musharraf’s answer to the post-September 11 crisis to Kemal Ataturk’s transformation of Turkey into a “secular” state in the 1920s. While selectively remembering the secularizing impulse of Kemalism, these assertions tend to forget that the Turkish experiment in nation-building has been fraught with draconian laws, centralized power, oppression of ethnic minorities and extreme brutality visited upon the population by a police state. As in Turkey, those Pakistanis affected by such a nation-building process will resist its imposition. If the social and political framework within the country does not fundamentally change, the territorial integrity of Pakistan may dissolve. The geostrategic location of Pakistan, along with its nuclear capacity, should make the international community think seriously about this possible outcome of its support for the continued rule of Gen. Musharraf and his colleagues.

How to cite this article:

Kamran Asdar Ali "The Band Played On," Middle East Report Online, May 09, 2002.

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