At around 5 pm on February 18 a dozen or so supporters of ex-premier Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) burst into song along the serpentine streets of Lahore’s old city. Down the road stood a phalanx of police and, behind them, a busload of flag-waving Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) activists, supporters of the slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

The two parties had fought head to head in this city of three million voters, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s richest and most populous province. Both sides knew they had won, even though the scale of their triumph was yet to be revealed. The PML-N group ringed the PPP bus, embraced their rival party’s cadre and danced on. The police did not lift a finger.

The encounter revealed the significance of Pakistan’s parliamentary elections. It was not about who won. It was about who lost.

Before the legislative contests of 2002, President Pervez Musharraf confected the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), an artificial coalition of retired army officers, feudal landlords, wealthy businessmen and political defectors. Its sole purpose was to give civilian cover to the general’s otherwise naked military rule. He assembled an alliance of right-wing Islamist parties (the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal or MMA) to keep secular and nationalist parties at bay, especially in the restive Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP).

On February 18 these two political fictions were blown away. The PML-N won Punjab and the political capitals of Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The PPP swept Sindh province, largely riding the swell of anger released by Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007. The MMA was reduced to a rump in the NWFP. The only province where the Islamist and PML-Q votes held up was Balochistan — and that was because Baloch nationalist parties boycotted the poll.

Since he seized power in a coup in 1999, Musharraf has tried to destroy the PPP and PML-N. On February 21 the parties’ two current chairpersons — Sharif and Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari — took their “democratic revenge”: They pledged “in principle” to form a “government of national consensus” in the center and the provinces. Among the many minefields this budding alliance will need to negotiate is the issue of Musharraf’s ongoing presidency and how to restore the judiciary he sacked during his second round of martial rule in November. Both parties vowed to do this: Sharif has made it the condition of joining any coalition.

But the government has an even greater task. Can these two historically flawed parties translate the mandate they have received into a national-popular movement for civilian rule? The main obstacle to that transition is not Musharraf or even Islamist militancy. It is the two powers that have always been most inimical to democracy in Pakistan but, for their own reasons, allowed the 2008 elections to be reasonably free — the 600,000-strong Pakistani army and the United States.

The Chief Justice

Musharraf’s downfall in 2008 is the result of two overlapping crises. The first is a growing confrontation between the fact of military rule and a new, modern and combative civil society, crystallizing around the demand for a judiciary independent of the army. The second is a Taliban-led insurgency, whose cause and epicenter is Afghanistan, but whose radius reaches Peshawar in the NWFP. But it was a man in black judicial robes who laid the tripwire.

On March 9, 2007, the general — in uniform and surrounded by intelligence chiefs — summoned the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, to Army House in Rawalpindi. He was dismissed from his post on the grounds of alleged “misconduct.” The real reason for his firing was that he had transgressed the red lines of civilian governance drawn by the military: He had challenged the army’s illegal acquisition of state power.

The army has ruled Pakistan directly for most of the country’s 60-year existence and indirectly for the rest. But under Musharraf it has completed its long evolution into a distinct military-economic class. The army commands $20 billion in assets, controls one third of all heavy manufacturing in the country and owns 12 million acres of land. It also possesses 50 nuclear warheads. By some calculations, it has received $20 billion in overt and covert US military aid since the attacks of September 11, 2001. This clout it possesses in a country where nearly 65 million of 165 million citizens are impoverished and, in some provinces, half are illiterate. No parliament is allowed to discuss, or even see, the defense budget.

Thousands of officers, retired and serving, hold civilian jobs in state bodies and corporations, sometimes as ministers, university rectors and cricket team selectors. The highest decision-making body in the land is neither the presidency nor the parliament but the National Security Council, where unelected generals carry more weight than elected prime ministers. Protecting this immense power from all “enemies” are deeply politicized intelligence services like the Military Intelligence agency and the army’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) directorate. These spy shops concocted the PML-Q and MMA alliances that won the 2002 elections, only to abandon both of their creations to their respective dismal fates in the 2008 suffrage. “The ISI’s political cell is Pakistan’s most powerful political party. It has resources and organization. It ‘wins’ elections,” says Javed Hashimi, the PML-N’s vice president. Hashimi should know. He was incarcerated for three years. The chief justice released him in August 2007 because the state could produce no evidence of wrongdoing against him. On February 18, he won his seat in Rawalpindi in a race against a sitting minister.

Chaudhry tried to put the leviathan under some kind of legal purview. He ruled illegal government privatization deals that sold off state assets at bargain-basement prices to army cronies in the native and Arab bourgeoisie. He tried to render ISI and Military Intelligence commanders accountable for the disappearance of hundreds of Pakistani citizens, sometimes in exchange for bounty paid by the CIA, but more often because they were regime dissidents. Finally, Chaudhry made it clear that under the constitution Musharraf could not preserve his dual position as president and army chief of staff beyond the expiry of his presidential term on November 15, 2007. “That is why he was sacked,” said a PML-Q leader in March. It turned out to be the political blunder of Musharraf’s life, the moment when the balance of fear in Pakistan changed sides.

In a wholly unforeseen reaction, black-suited lawyers took to the streets in protest. Civil society organizations broke free to join them. And a newly independent media filmed each clash, amplified each government mistake, blow by blow. Over the next four months, demonstrations that began as small knots of lawyers outside the Supreme Court swelled into motorcades drawing thousands across the breadth of Punjab. Through sheer momentum — and want of evidence of “misconduct” — the Supreme Court restored the chief justice on July 20.

For the young — especially students and professionals — the chief justice’s restoration campaign was their first taste of political activism. For the old, it was the first time in a generation that a strategy of collective action had taken on the regime and won. Everyone felt a sense of disbelief. “Finally, a judge in Pakistan had looked a general in the eye, and not blinked,” said Ayaz Amir, a columnist. Musharraf, stunned, accepted the Supreme Court verdict. “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 modernization.”

Reinstated, the chief justice picked up where he had left off, freeing political prisoners like Hashimi, mandating the right of return of banished leaders like Sharif and demanding the reappearance of the hundreds the ISI and Military Intelligence had “disappeared.” Sixty-six persons were freed, mostly Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, all cleared of any charge. Some had been interned in dark, unregistered dungeons. Many had been tortured.

A Supreme Court bench was about to rule on the constitutionality of Musharraf’s presidential “reelection” in October when, on November 3, the general declared martial law. It was the second time he had done so, though the first against his own government. Sixty Supreme and High Court judges were sacked, including Chaudhry; 5,000 lawyers were imprisoned. They were engaged in “a well-thought-out conspiracy” to oust him, a dour Musharraf told the nation. The chief justice was “the scum of the earth,” he added. Chaudhry has been confined to his home in Islamabad ever since. Most, but not all, of the lawyers have been freed.

The election results were the judges’ revenge, said Aitzaz Ahsan, a PPP leader and president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association. A flamboyant, charismatic barrister, he is widely credited as the brain who transformed the chief justice’s dismissal into the biggest mass movement against military rule in Pakistan since 1968. He believes that the movement not only caused “the rout of the king and all the king’s men,” but also served as the prototype for a successful struggle against military rule and a lesson for his party and the next government. The PML-N won those cities and urban middle constituencies politicized by the lawyers’ movement. The PPP did not. Why?

The Deal

Benazir Bhutto viewed the lawyers’ protests through the prism of her own political rehabilitation. She had been in voluntary exile since 1999, fleeing charges of corruption during her terms as prime minister. From her own struggles against an earlier dictatorship, she knew that the lawyers and media had exposed the regime’s Achilles’ heel: It had no civilian legitimacy, not even among the country’s Westernized elite, those classes that had initially welcomed the coup as a corrective to the epic venality of governments like hers. But she was fearful that mass agitation would trigger martial rule, destroying the brittle negotiations about the terms of her return.

The PPP is the largest party in Pakistan, and the strongest political force among the lawyers’ associations. She told her cadre to tail the protests, not lead them. She publicly shunned Ahsan. This was partly done out of rivalry: He had acquired enormous moral kudos in the lawyers’ struggle and many saw him as a future prime minister. But it was also because he was from Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s political heartland. He was the most articulate representative of the PPP’s urban, middle-class and modernist wing.

Bhutto was from Sindh. She drew strength from the rural masses that her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had enfranchised through partial land reforms when he was prime minister in the 1970s. But she was not a reformer. She was a peculiar post-colonial hybrid of Westernized elite and feudal lord. For the rural poor or those adrift in the teeming slums of Karachi, she was simply “Zulfiqar’s daughter,” the scion of the only Pakistani leader who had ever pleaded their case. They looked to her for jobs and services, not justice and law.

She offered Washington a deal. In return for an amnesty on the corruption charges and free elections, she would withdraw the PPP from the Alliance to Restore Democracy — a cross-party coalition predicated on removing Musharraf from power and the army from governance. The PML-N was the other main signatory to the Alliance. She also said she would rally her party behind a civilian Musharraf presidency.

Bhutto had been taking this pitch around Washington for years, sometimes getting a breakfast meeting with a lowly State Department official. But, in June 2007, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher offered a response more like the one she was looking for. One reason for the State Deparment’s newfound interest was the lawyers’ protests, which had alerted Foggy Bottom to the strong possibility that President George W. Bush’s “most allied of allies” was an emperor losing his clothes. And there were other reasons.

US intelligence had reported that the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants driven from Afghanistan in the early phases of the US-led war there had “regrouped” in northern Waziristan, a remote tribal agency on the Afghan border. From this redoubt, the Taliban were powering the Afghan insurgency and al-Qaeda, together with its Pakistani jihadi brethen, was training cadre to launch attacks in the US, Europe and North Africa. The renascence was the spawn of a peace agreement between the army and the Pakistan Taliban in September 2006. Musharraf had sold this parley to the US and British governments as a “holistic” solution to the menace of extremism. It was based on the idea that decrepit tribal structures could be revived to “isolate” the militants. In fact, it was a treaty of surrender, brought on by US-driven military campaigns followed by panicked government retreats. These pullbacks had demoralized the army and strengthened the Taliban, mainly against the tribal elders or maliks. Ten months after the deal was signed, Bush told Musharraf to scrap it.

Bush’s words were not just friendly advice. In June and July, US special forces launched raids into Pakistan that left dozens of tribesmen dead, and one unequivocal message: If the Pakistani army did not go after the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the US army would. In August, Bush signed a law predicating $1 billion in annual US military aid for Pakistan upon the army acting against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Demonstrating bipartisanship, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said that a Democratic government would also send in the Marines if there were “actionable intelligence” indicating that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan. That comment made the al-Qaeda leader four times more popular among Pakistanis than Bush.

Weak at home, Musharraf buckled. After months of dithering he ordered a commando assault on Islamabad’s Red Mosque, long a sanctuary for pro-Taliban clerics and banned jihadi militia. More than 100 were killed, mostly seminary students. Musharraf sent two more divisions to northern Waziristan, swelling the army presence in the border areas to nearly 100,000 soldiers. The reinforcements buried the deal with the Taliban. And they were another blunder.

In revenge, jihadis inspired by the Taliban and al-Qaeda launched an insurgency that, by the end of 2007, had killed 3,450 people, including 800 who perished in 60 suicide attacks (there had been six suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2006). The militants not only bogged down the army in guerrilla warfare in the tribal areas, but also mounted forays deep inside Pakistan. In November, they captured the NWFP’s scenic Swat district, holding it for almost a month. In January, they seized the strategic Indus highway linking Peshawar to southern Pakistan. Both times the army had to mobilize thousands to recover what a failed civilian administration and police had lost. Most significantly of all, the militants turned on their mentors, rupturing what was once known as Pakistan’s military-mullah alliance. The Taliban and jihadis killed or tried to kill ISI officers, army commandos, intelligence heads and politicians, like Bhutto, who had aligned themselves with Musharraf. In the not so distant past, the 1980s and 1990s, such targets were the “handlers” who had dispatched the militants on the state’s Afghan and Kashmiri jihads. Now the handlers faced blowback. Generals in Peshawar and Rawalpindi were advised not to go out in uniform. Across Pakistan people blamed the army for the suicide bombings — not the “tribals.” “We have never been so hated,” said a retired officer.

The impact of fighting “America’s war” on civilian lives and soldiers’ morale was huge. In August, the Taliban in southern Waziristan captured 300 soldiers, who gave up without firing a shot. Most were released two months later in exchange for the government’s surrender of 25 Taliban fugitives; three Shia soldiers had been beheaded. In February 2008 the army resigned the deal in northern Waziristan that the US had wanted it to scuttle. The army was observing an unofficial truce in southern Waziristan with Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader who the government has accused of murdering Benazir Bhutto. Nothing at all had been gained from the six-month offensive, and much had been lost.

Despite this record, Bush lionized Musharraf for “taking the war” to al-Qaeda—as did Bhutto. She was the only Pakistani politician to do so. NATO in Afghanistan noted a 40 percent drop in cross-border infiltration from Pakistan. It was left to Sharif to state the obvious: In fighting America’s war in Afghanistan, the “perception” was that Pakistan had brought the war on itself and for the sole benefit of the military dictatorship. “America is trying to solve the problem through a man [Musharraf] who is highly unpopular. But there has to be a national consensus in the war against terrorism. We are suffering terribly from terrorism. But we have to decide what terrorism is and whether our actions are not turning our people into terrorists.”

The army’s campaigns in the tribal areas were the context for the Bhutto-Musharraf deal. Very simply, she was to deliver greater civilian legitimacy to a military strategy fought more thoroughly on Washington’s terms. Boucher added the final touches at a “secret” meeting between the two leaders in Dubai in July.

For Bhutto the tryst was confirmation of her belief, learned in government, that the road to even partial power in Pakistan lay through Washington and the army. Musharraf subsequently admitted that he had accepted the deal under US duress. “It was foisted on him,” said an aide. The only term he ever fully implemented was the amnesty; he knew it would hurt Bhutto politically. He was right.

But that was down the road. In July, Musharraf and Boucher said they would not forget the risks Bhutto had taken for the sake of the “war on terror.” They did forget, but others did not.


After she had been so long away, PPP cadre were pleased by the return of their “chairperson for life.” But many were dismayed by the terms. Coming at the height of the lawyers’ protests, many feared the deal would undercut Pakistan’s best chance in years to move toward some sort of constitutional government. They also knew that trucking with the dictator could only alienate those urban, middle-class constituencies drawn back into politics by the chief justice’s reinstatement campaign — the very people the PPP would need if was to break out of its rural Sindhi ghetto.

There was also the unflattering comparison with Sharif. He had got his repatriation after seven years of exile in Saudi Arabia courtesy of a Supreme Court ruling in August. Musharraf unceremoniously kicked him back to Jidda when he tried to land in Islamabad in September. The “millions” Sharif said would turn out to receive him were nowhere to be seen. The Americans were silent; the Saudis were complicit. But it was the response from Bhutto that shocked even ardent loyalists. She said Sharif had gone into exile as part of an agreement with Musharraf and, by returning, had reneged on it. In other words: Pakistan’s military ruler, who had come to power in a coup, was right to banish anew the man he had ousted as Pakistan’s last elected prime minister. The Supreme Court was not mentioned. Bhutto’s stock began to resemble Musharraf’s.

She was unapologetic. In leadership meetings in London and Dubai, she averred that whatever popularity she had lost through dealing with Musharraf would be regained through the momentum powered by her return to Pakistan. She had a point.

Tens of thousands turned out to greet her when she landed in Karachi on October 18. And hundreds were killed and maimed when suicide bombers blitzed her motorcade. The reception and the ambush demonstrated two things: First, she could still marshal the masses like no other politician in Pakistan, and, second, her enemies were prepared to go to any lengths to see her dead. The sequence of events — and the courage she displayed in returning despite numerous threats — won back her support, particularly among the disaffected PPP rank and file. It also “re-radicalized” her, said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, foreign secretary in her first government (1988-1990). “She knew under the American plan she was to play second fiddle—that, as far as Washington was concerned, it was Musharraf and the army who were indispensable in Pakistan, not she and the PPP,” Khan continued. “But she believed the dynamics set off by her homecoming would enlarge the political space available to her and her policies. This is when the barrier between her and Musharraf came up. He and the army began to have suspicions she would go beyond her allotted role.”

Her oratory certainly changed once she was back on her home turf. Abroad, she had cast the fundamental conflict in Pakistan in terms familiar to Americans, a sort of demonology pitting “moderates” against “extremists.” In Pakistan, the divide was dictatorship versus democracy. Yes, force would have to be used against those who tried to spread their arid interpretation of religion by the gun and the suicide bomber’s vest, but autonomy, development and democracy were the rights of those who did not. Mobilization — not military might — was the best way to isolate the militants. “Education, employment and empowerment,” became her watchwords, echoing the “bread, shelter and clothing” slogan that had so pulled the poor behind her father’s first election campaign in 1970. The populist refrain struck similar chords in 2007.

When martial law was declared in November, Bhutto pronounced: “It’s over with Musharraf!” With these words, she apparently cast her deal with the general and his Washington allies to the wind. She reached out to the PML-N and other opposition parties and, finally, threatened to pull the massed ranks of the PPP onto the streets of Lahore and Islamabad. Sources say she was a hair’s breadth away from a boycott of elections, which would have brought Washington’s elaborately piled-up sand castle housing Musharraf crashing down. One phone call from Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte dissuaded her. And that was the point.

No matter how estranged she became from Musharraf, she never departed from the script laid down by Washington. On his presidency, the centrality of the army’s role in governance and the restoration of the pre-martial law judiciary, she was studiously, deliberately, repeatedly vague. It was part of the trade, said a PML-Q leader who was privy to the negotiations. “She had promised the Americans that Musharraf as president would keep control of the national security issues, especially Afghanistan, the war on terror and Pakistan’s nuclear arms. Washington envisioned Bhutto as a domestic prime minister who would present the democratic face of Pakistan abroad.”

The contrast with Sharif was, again, telling. He returned to Pakistan in November, on the eve of the election season. His repatriation came at the insistence of Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdallah — a power, unlike the Supreme Court, that neither Musharraf nor Washington could ignore. And the PML-N leader brought light to every issue that the PPP leader clouded: Musharraf would have to go, the army would have get out of politics and the judges, especially, Chaudhry, would have to be reinstated.

He said this in Lahore, in Islamabad and throughout Punjab. No one knows how Bhutto would have addressed these capitals, for she was murdered after her first public address in Rawalpindi on December 27. By the time her widower and heir spoke in Faisalabad, Punjab, in February it was no longer an election rally, recalled PPP leader Ejaz ul Hassan. “It was a requiem.”

Was Bhutto right in her strategy? Ejaz ul Hassan, like most other urban PPP cadre, answers with a shrug of the shoulders. It is true that, without Bhutto’s return and the immense party base she revived, the PPP would never have been able to capitalize on the sympathy caused by her death. Today it is the largest party in the national assembly, the only political force with a base in all four provinces. But it is also true that the deal lost her the cities, and the modern, urban, civil communities they host that, since March 9, have led the struggle against military rule.

The Struggle Continues

Washington’s first response to Musharraf’s defeat was to save him. They appealed to Zardari and Sharif to revive the deal sealed with Bhutto, as though her murder and the electoral rout were passing squalls. Bush was explicit: “President Musharraf has done exactly that which he said he was going to do. He said he would hold elections. He said he would get rid of his emergency law. And so it’s now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government. The question is will they be friends of the US — I certainly hope so.” US and British diplomats made frenzied efforts in Islamabad to persuade the PPP to keep Musharraf in place. It is a non-starter, says Ahsan. “If Zardari does that, Nawaz Sharif will leave the coalition. The PPP would have to form a government with the PML-Q. We’ll be endorsing a leader and leadership the electorate has just rejected.”

The PPP has instead agreed to form a government with the PML-N. It has ruled out any coalition with the PML-Q. This move would suggest that Musharraf’s days are numbered. If the two victorious parties restore the judiciary, it will almost certainly rule against his presidency. If Musharraf tries to block judicial restoration, the government will move to shear his powers. In either direction lies an impasse. The only exit for Musharraf would be to dissolve Parliament and declare martial law for a third time. And that will not happen, says a PML-Q source. “The army doesn’t have the stomach to fight its own people. It won’t bail Musharraf out again.”

The greater fear is whether the new government can permanently stave off the threat of a coup. Under its new chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army was neutral in the elections: It explicitly told the ISI and Military Intelligence not to rig them. This maneuver is not such a big deal, says military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “Historically, the Pakistani army allows free and fair elections whenever there is a crisis of state legitimacy with the public. It momentarily relinquishes control to keep its power intact.”

No Pakistani government is going to dismantle the empire the military has obtained under Musharraf — at least not in a single term. But the government can complete the process the chief justice and lawyers began, says Rais. “It can insist the army play its constitutional role. Everyone knows the army’s political manipulation is not done directly by army headquarters but by the intelligence agencies, especially the ISI’s political cell. That cell is unconstitutional and must be abolished. There must be a clear demand that the army’s role is to secure the country, not manage its politicians. If these things happen, there will be a shift in favor of civilian institutions in Pakistan, and a shift in authority.”

Similarly, there will be a shift if parties in the coalition agree to resolve differences among themselves rather than by recourse to the army, a trait of both the PPP and PML-N politics in the past. Both parties say they have learned from history: They have a charter of democracy that prohibits army intervention. The hope of their people is that they have indeed learned.

Finally, there is hope that some kind of national consensus can emerge on tackling the Islamist and Baloch insurgencies. Zardari has said that his party is prepared to talk to anyone, “including those fighting in the mountains.” And all the mainstream parties — even the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party — now accept that the army’s campaigns in the tribal areas have been a political disaster, empowering the very Taliban they were supposed to quell. Asif Ahmed Ali was foreign minister in the PPP’s second government (1993-1996). He agrees that in the long term the solution for the tribal areas lies in their development, democratization and integration into the rest of Pakistan. But in the short term the insurgency can only be staunched by political negotiations, and not only in Pakistan. “I would talk to the Taliban today,” he says. “If you want to include the Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you have to talk to the Taliban. They represent a real constituency. I’d advise NATO to talk to them.”

Such views are not music to Washington’s ears. That they are expressed explains why the US prefers an autocrat and his army in charge in Pakistan rather than an elected, civilian, constitutional and law-based government. But they are at one with Pakistani sentiment. Civilian leaders know the only way the conflict with Islamic militancy can be owned by Pakistanis as “their war” is if it is decoupled from “America’s war” in Afghanistan. And that can only happen when the Pakistani army is subordinate to Parliament more than it is to Washington. The struggle for Pakistan continues.

How to cite this article:

Graham Usher "The Struggle for Pakistan Continues," Middle East Report 246 (Spring 2008).

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