Tariq Ali’s blistering account of the venal military and feudal elites that have dominated the Pakistani political establishment for over fifty years highlights some depressingly cyclical historical patterns – the ruthless, Westernized dictator-general applauded in the West as the only hope for peace and stability, the endless promises by said dictator that he really just wants to nurture “true” democracy, the cynical alliances between the Pakistani military elite and their allies in the region and beyond to ensure their geo-strategic interests, the short-lived civilian ruler who believes he can control the military by picking a loyal nobody to head it, and the unprincipled willingness of all to play the religious card when all else fails (so long as they have a bootlegger’s phone number).
Ayub banned all political parties, took over opposition newspapers and told the first meeting of his cabinet: ‘As far as you are concerned there is only one embassy that matters in this country: the American Embassy.’ In a radio broadcast to the nation he informed his bewildered ‘fellow countrymen’ that ‘we must understand that democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy we must have a cold climate like Britain.’
As head of the Pakistani training mission to Jordan, Brigadier Zia had led the Black September assault on the Palestinians in 1970. In July 1977, to pre-empt an agreement between Bhutto and the opposition parties that would have entailed new elections, Zia struck. Bhutto was arrested, and held for a few weeks, and Zia promised that new elections would be held within six months, after which the military would return to barracks. A year later Bhutto, still popular and greeted by large crowds wherever he went, was again arrested, and this time charged with murder, tried and hanged in April 1979.
[In 1977] the Parcham Communists, who had backed the 1973 military coup by Prince Daud after which a republic was proclaimed, withdrew their support from Daud, were reunited with other Communist groups to form the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), and began to agitate for a new government. The regimes in neighbouring countries became involved. The shah of Iran, acting as a conduit for Washington, recommended firm action – large-scale arrests, executions, torture – and put units from his torture agency at Daud’s disposal. The shah also told Daud that if he recognised the Durand Line as a permanent frontier the shah would give Afghanistan $3 billion and Pakistan would cease hostile actions. Meanwhile, Pakistani intelligence agencies were arming Afghan exiles while encouraging old-style tribal uprisings aimed at restoring the monarchy. Daud was inclined to accept the shah’s offer, but the Communists organised a pre-emptive coup and took power in April 1978. There was panic in Washington, which increased tenfold as it became clear that the shah too was about to be deposed. General Zia’s dictatorship thus became the lynchpin of US strategy in the region, which is why Washington green-lighted Bhutto’s execution and turned a blind eye to the country’s nuclear programme. The US wanted a stable Pakistan whatever the cost.
Sharif told Washington that he had been bounced into a war he didn’t want, and not long after the war, the Sharif family decided to get rid of Musharraf. Constitutionally, the prime minister had the power to dismiss the chief of staff and appoint a new one, as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had done in the 1970s, when he appointed Zia. But the army then was weak, divided and defeated; this was certainly not the case in 1999.
Sharif’s candidate to succeed Musharraf was General Ziauddin Butt, head of the ISI, who was widely seen as corrupt and incompetent. He was bundled off to Washington for vetting and while there is said to have pledged bin Laden’s head on a platter. If Sharif had just dismissed Musharraf he might have had a better chance of success but what he lacked in good sense his brother tried to make up for in guile. Were the Sharif brothers really so foolish as believe that the army was unaware of their intrigues or were they misled by their belief in US omnipotence? Clinton duly warned the army that Washington would not tolerate a military coup in Pakistan and I remember chuckling at the time that this was a first in US-Pakistan relations. Sharif relied too heavily on Clinton’s warning.
[Musharraf] has mimicked his military predecessors. Like them, he took off his uniform, went to a landlord-organised gathering in Sind and entered politics. His party? The evergreen, ever available Muslim League. His supporters? Chips off the same old corrupt block that he had denounced so vigorously and whose leaders he was prosecuting. His prime minister? Shaukat ‘Shortcut’ Aziz, formerly a senior executive of Citibank with close ties to the eighth richest man in the world, the Saudi prince Al-Walid bin Talal. As it became clear that nothing much was going to change a wave of cynicism engulfed the country.
Musharraf is better than Zia and Ayub in many ways, but human rights groups have noticed a sharp rise in the number of political activists who are being ‘disappeared’: four hundred this year alone, including Sindhi nationalists and a total of 1200 in the province of Baluchistan, where the army has become trigger-happy once again. The war on terror has provided many leaders with the chance to sort out their opponents, but that doesn’t make it any better.
It’s difficult to imagine how Pakistan could break out of this sordid pattern. A friend recently remarked that if anyone really wanted to change the system, they should air-drop vast quantities of the finest Scotch into the military bases and elite neighbourhoods of Pakistan; by nightfall, the entire military and feudal elite would be passed out, and the country would fold meekly to an invasion.
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