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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > The glimmer of that elusive dawn


The glimmer of that elusive dawn

Tuesday 11 March 2008, by Siddharth Varadarajan

The real significance of the compact between the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is not that former rivals have joined hands but that the two parties are thinking politically about the next steps Pakistan must take in order to complete its tryst with destiny. Emotion and sentiment have been relegated to second place. The longer they remain there, the lighter will be the burden on the men and women upon whom history has entrusted a great and difficult task.

At stake is not just the restoration of democracy but the survival of Pakistan as a nation-state. Though Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif acted like statesmen on Sunday, the Murree Declaration which they issued will mark a decisive step in Pakistan’s march towards a new political order only if all actors on the political stage play their roles responsibly.

First and foremost, the coalition government being established must receive the unalloyed support of the international community, and especially the United States and its military.

It is necessary to reiterate this because Washington’s role in effecting the transition from military rule in Pakistan has been mixed, to say the least. The U.S. helped broker an understanding between President Pervez Musharraf and the late Benazir Bhutto but it is now obvious that important sections of the American establishment never intended the pendulum of power to swing too far from the military.

A puff piece on U.S. Central Command chief, Admiral William Fallon, in the latest issue of Esquire reveals the extent to which the American military is backing Musharraf. “The admiral,” writes Thomas R. Barnett, “seems neither alarmed by the move nor resigned to its more negative implications.” Describing his meeting with Musharraf just before the imposition of emergency last autumn, the U.S. military commander says, “He’s made his calculations. He feels very strongly that he’s responsible for his country. His alternative is to step down. That would not be the most helpful thing for his country.” Asked why not, Fallon’s reply is instructive: “[Pakistan’s] a very immature democracy. Look at the history of the place. It’s rough. Musharraf knows his country. He knows what he’s got. Their factions, their tribes. There’s that group of folks that wants nothing more than to start a war with India… He’s got a tough road...”

“As for Washington’s notion that Benazir Bhutto’s return to the country would fix all that,” notes Barnett, “Fallon is pessimistic. He slowly shakes his head. ‘Better forget that’.”

Admiral Fallon’s views are significant because he is America’s pointsman for all military dealings with Islamabad. Amazingly, he simply doesn’t realise that if Pakistan is a “rough place” and “a very immature democracy” and if there are forces “which would like nothing more than to start a war with India” this is precisely because the Army has run the country for so long. If this was the contempt the U.S. military brass had for democracy in Pakistan while Benazir was alive, one can imagine its tolerance level for the lesser leaders who will now rule.

In sum, the Pentagon will likely be unwilling to see an elected government exercise control over the country’s defence and security policies. Even if Musharraf proves expendable down the road, the U.S. will find other horses to back. But such a policy is fraught with danger and will eventually put America and Pakistan on a collision path, especially if the Pakistani military does not go in for a fundamental course correction.

Ending the cult of ‘jihad’

Simply put, democracy in Pakistan requires that the military not only keep its nose out of politics but turn its back once and for all on the strategy of using extremists as foot soldiers against Afghanistan and India.

This issue is as much about constitutionalism as about the very survival of the Pakistani military as a coherent institution. The cult of jihad nurtured by the Pakistani army for decades as a tool of military policy has rebounded so badly that it is not safe for senior officers to appear in public without the heaviest bandobast. Even then, as the recent assassination of Pakistan’s surgeon-general showed, immunity from terrorist attack is not guaranteed. While it is unlikely that one arm of the Pakistani military is actively involved in attacks on another, such incidents are the inevitable product of the institutional permissiveness which exists at different levels and in different branches of the army towards extremism.

In the wake of 9/11, Musharraf abandoned the Taliban but thought he could safely firewall the extremists executing Pakistan’s Kashmir policy. When it emerged that several of those organisations had formed links with the al-Qaeda, half-hearted attempts were made to erect another firewall. Eventually, most of these groups were told to curb their activities but their physical and financial infrastructure remained intact for future use.

Making a clean break means practising zero tolerance towards any organisation which challenges the Pakistani State’s monopoly over the right to bear arms and use force. This means shutting down the activities of the neo-Taliban, the Kashmir extremists, and the assorted terrorist and sectarian groups that have flourished under the army’s benevolent gaze all these years. The ‘war on terror’, in other words, has to be one the Pakistani army undertakes as its own agenda for its own survival. And this would also mean putting its full institutional weight behind the peace process with India and the stabilisation of Afghanistan, so that the instability caused by outside troops with their indiscriminate rules of engagement can also be ended sooner rather than later.

If America and the Army have major roles to play in allowing Pakistan’s transition towards constitutional rule, the political parties and the President also cannot evade their responsibility.

Even as they hold Pervez Musharraf responsible for the subversion of democracy and the assassination of Benazir, the PPP-PML(N) coalition must not allow the agenda of reconfiguring the structure of power between Parliament and President to be converted into a personalised vendetta against the current incumbent. Like the departure of the British from the subcontinent in 1947, what we are witnessing is not a revolution but a transfer of power. Revolutions and confrontations have much to commend themselves but only if the balance of forces is such as to enable them to be successful. The Murree Declaration commits the PPP and PML(N) to the restoration of the superior judges whose peremptory dismissal by President Musharraf last year precipitated the chain of events culminating in February’s landmark electoral verdict. This is an important matter of principle but in pushing this agenda, the coalition needs to think carefully of how this is to be done. Sunday’s announcement speaks of the National Assembly taking up the issue but there is no use pretending a simple resolution is going to sort out what is essentially a political matter.

President Musharraf is bound to fear the consequences of a restored judiciary since the judges were dismissed precisely for refusing to endorse his illegal methods. Even as they implement their pledge, however, the PPP and PML need to realise the simple sacking of Mr. Musharraf through a new judicial order is less urgent a task than the rebalancing of constitutional powers through a constitutional amendment. Indeed, now that the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam faction of Fazlur Rahman has announced its decision to join the PPP-led coalition at the Centre, the strength of the new dispensation in the National Assembly has risen to the two-thirds needed to rid of the Constitution of Article 58(2b) granting the President the power to dissolve parliament. It would be a pity if this task were to be sacrificed in some way at the altar of the judges question.

As for President Musharraf, the time has come for him to accept the reality of the transition that is underway. As long as he does not undermine the proposed constitutional amendment and restoration of judges, his eviction from the President’s office is not a foregone conclusion. But if he provokes a confrontation, it is unlikely that he will survive its eventual denouement with as much in his hands as he has now.