Less than three months after being formed, Pakistan’s coalition government is in trouble. The leader of one of its constituent parties, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), is awaiting a decision from the country’s Supreme Court about whether he can run in parliamentary by-elections that began on June 26. The court is packed with judges appointed by President Pervez Musharraf, the ex-general who overthrew Sharif, a two-time prime minister, in a 1999 coup.
Benazir Bhutto, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
Only a dead nation remembers its heroes when they die. Real nations respect them when they are alive.
―Abdul Ghaffar Khan
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 sparked outrage and mourning, not least in the Western media. Exhibiting the overstated piety one might expect upon the death of an elder statesman, commentators called her an “exemplary democrat” and condemned the “fascism” of the Muslim extremists presumed responsible for her killing. Footage of emotional demonstrations and angry rioting in her home province of Sindh bolstered an image of Bhutto — one that she herself liked to project — as a tribune of the Pakistani poor.
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.
“A very frank discussion” — so President Bush described his November 7 telephone conversation with Pervez Musharraf, four days after the Pakistani general imposed a state of emergency and dissolved the high court expected to rule his continued presidency unconstitutional. And frank the discussion probably was: In the face of spirited protest in Pakistan, and a querulous press in Washington, back-channel pressure succeeded in persuading Musharraf to promise parliamentary elections. Yet the generous US aid earmarked for Pakistan — on top of nearly $10 billion since 2001 — is quite evidently not at risk.
While the US “war on terror” in Afghanistan and areas in bordering Pakistan occupies the imagination of millions in the West, the simmering conflict in the Pakistani province of Balochistan (Baluchistan) an its disastrous effects on the civilian population evade the radar of popular media. In 2005, when Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, threatened Baloch insurgents with such violence that “you won’t even know what hit you,” hardly anyone outside Pakistan noticed. Soon, the Pakistani military launched a “shock and awe” campaign, involving helicopter gunships, fighter jets, heavy artillery and machine guns, against Baloch nationalists demanding greater political autonomy from the federal government.
When George W. Bush arrives in Islamabad on March 4, 2006, his will be the first visit to Pakistan by a US president since Bill Clinton touched down there in March 2000. Aside from the coincidence of the month, the circumstances could hardly be more different. In 2000, Clinton stayed for barely five hours, refused to be photographed with the then recently installed military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and proceeded to lecture the general on Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamist insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
In January 2002, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized control of the Pakistani government in a 1999 military coup, delivered a major address to the nation—and to the world at large. Mindful of Pakistan’s designation by the global media as a crucial front in the US “war on terrorism,” Musharraf promised to curtail the activities of radical Islamist groups and to reform the curricula of the Islamic schools (madrassas) that had become infamous worldwide as incubators of the Taliban.
Those in favor of an Iraq invasion argue that a regime change will be the first step in bringing democracy to the Middle East. But unnoticed in all the recent national focus on Iraq, recent elections in Morocco, Bahrain, Turkey and Pakistan indicate that democracy, albeit in small increments, has already begun arriving in that region and parts of Islamic South Asia.
The question is whether we are prepared for what those elections may bring. In many cases, these elections were precedent-setting. Morocco held its first transparent vote last month, and set aside 30 seats in the lower house expressly for women. Bahrain, with its first democratic elections in 30 years, included eight female candidates in the final round for parliament.
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.
Radical Islam and the activities of jihadi groups have been central to Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan as well as India. But the Pakistani military was already turning against such groups for internal reasons, before the US assault on al-Qaeda and the Taliban and this winter’s confrontation with India.
Underlying the appearance of the Taliban movement, first of all, are factors internal to Afghan society, in particular the discrediting of the government and the “commandos” born out of the resistance to Soviet intervention. The rapid expansion of the militia, culminating with the conquest of Kabul on September 26, 1996, cannot be understood without considering the direct support of Pakistan, abetted by the US and Saudi Arabia, as part of a larger project to export fossil fuels from Central Asia to Western markets via Afghanistan and Pakistan, bypassing Iran and Russia.
Intifada Chic We’re not really sure what this tells us about the present state of the Israeli Jewish psyche, almost two years into the intifada, but here are some of the designer T-shirts being sold these days in Jerusalem:
Just a few weeks before he died in the plane crash with Zia ul-Haq, even General Akhtar Abd ul-Rahman Khan was anxious over the possibility of a shift in US policy under a new administration. General Khan had engineered and administered the secret war in Afghanistan, first as director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and then as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. “The outcome of the war in Afghanistan may not be decided by November,” he told us. “We can only hope that the US will continue to see the great benefits of the mujahidin’s victory.”
Before they died in a suspicious plane crash on August 16, President/General Zia ul-Haq and his officer cohorts were looking with dismay at the prospect of a new administration in Washington. Pakistan forged the closest ties ever with the United States during the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s administration. The Soviet military presence in Afghanistan virtually guaranteed Reagan’s blind eye to Islamabad’s nuclear program. Increased military aid and closer intelligence ties boosted the Pakistani military’s dominant political role in the country.