Stanching political atrophy in Pakistan

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | 22 May 2020

Asia needs a stable Pakistan even more than a democratic one. Some would say that democracy alone can ensure lasting stability, but the long-term recipe would benefit from a phased transition with intermediate stages. If General Pervez Musharraf is a "gone man", to cite ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a civilian regime that replaces him overnight would be wobbly and prey to the next military adventurer.

Woe betide Asia if the adventurer is a Taleban-style organisation. That would mean the ultimate nightmare of a terrorist with nuclear bombs. India is the country that will be affected most. Though historical factors rule out India's help in breaking the stalemate, India can unwittingly play a spoiler's role unless the most militant Pakistanis are convinced by its assurances regarding a continuing Kashmir peace process.

China, to which Pakistan is beholden for the military aid, missile technology and diplomatic support that enhances its international profile, may not have much leverage in domestic affairs.

Only the US alone is in a position to persuade the Musharraf regime to acquiesce in the emergence of a responsible broad-based civil society that understands the limitations inherent in a military-feudal power structure. Whether democrats like it or not, the army cannot be bypassed in Pakistan. Understanding this, the Clinton administration promised then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto F-16 fighters as a counter weight to negotiate with the brasshats when they were independently going ahead with their nuclear plans.

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is the power centre within the Pakistan military. The comment that no matter who wins an election, the ISI is the winner, highlights the importance of an organisation that became immensely powerful during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) routed money and weapons to the Mujahideen, including Osama bin Laden, through it.

The current turmoil should warn the army, the ISI – and, of course, the US -- of the need for a national consensus. Unfortunately, the US seldom takes cognisance of the local credentials of its proteges. Protected dictators are allowed full play until they outlive their usefulness when the mutterings about democracy and human rights begin.

The controversy over former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhury confirms Gen Musharraf's concern that an independent judiciary might insist he discard his uniform if Pakistanis are to take the electoral mandate he seeks seriously.

The rise of fundamentalism is a consequence of marginalising mainline political parties and exiling national leaders. The resultant vacuum enabled the emergence of hardline clerics of the six-party Islamist Mutahida Majlis Amal.

A third factor, on which US Ambassador Peter Galbraith, the economist's son, reported to Congress is Pakistan's impoverishment despite a spurt in the GDP because of burdensome military budgets. Mr Galbraith noted that South Korea and Pakistan had started with the same per capita income but the former's had risen to be 10 times higher. The neglect of education pushed Pakistan's literacy down from 37 per cent to 25 per cent.

The US can help by recognising that chanelling money and arms to Gen Musharraf to stamp out terrorism may have exacerbated tensions. He should be encouraged instead to liberalise politics, initiate systemic reform and uphold the rule of law.

Separately,the American response to real or perceived WMD threats from Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya overlooked a possible Pakistani connection suggested in the report, Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks, recently published by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. Since only the uranium enrichment technology Mr Khan stole from the Netherlands enabled Pakistan to develop its weapons capability, the question of official complicity in his illegal trafficking merits investigation.

This leads to another conundrum. Former CIA director George Tenet claims in his book, At the Center of the Storm, that the proof he gave Gen Musharraf prompted Pakistan's military investigation of Mr Khan's activities. But American intelligence agents stole blueprints for a "crude, but highly reliable, Hiroshima-sized weapon" from Mr Khan's suitcase as long ago as the early eighties. The evidence was there for a long time, though hushed up for political reasons.

Even religious extremism can be traced to early roots. Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, spoke initially about a non-denominational national identity but was soon urging the army to uphold "Islamic democracy" and "Islamic social justice". A decade later Field Marshal Ayub, who staged the first military coup in 1958, boasted at a Commonwealth conference that Pakistanis did not need parliamentary democracy because as Muslims, they already enjoyed democracy's objective of social equality.

Perhaps religious fervour would have been more controlled if Pakistan had not been disappointed in its basic objectives. The hope of becoming the chosen home of all subcontinental Muslims was belied. Kashmir, providing the "K" in its name, opted for India. The eastern wing seceded a mere two and half decades later.

A nation of 166 million is bound to have many credible alternative leaders in waiting. But fundamentalists and fanatics are also lurking in the wings to seize power unless a smooth transfer can be arranged before time runs out.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and former editor of the Indian newspaper, The Statesman. 

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