Cracks appearing in Pakistan’s military regime as people demand democracy and Islam

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Shawwal 07, 1424 2003-12-01


by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 15, Shawwal, 1424)

Oscillating between comedy and farce, the Pakistani political scene has never been dull, but has resulted in terrible consequences for the hapless Pakistanis. An assorted array of charlatans and crooks, claiming to be on a messianic mission to usher in prosperity, have driven the masses into ever-deeper despair. Take the case of general Pervez Musharraf’s four-year military rule that was supposed to end corruption – he even set up a body called the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to deal with those involved in corruption – has left only more chaos in its wake. Some of the biggest crooks – not counting the military bigwigs who were already exempted from any accountability – have been allowed to get away virtually scott- free provided they agree not to make trouble for the regime. Those who have refused to strike a deal have been hounded and persecuted.

The country is even more divided and unsure of itself than it was in October 1999, when Musharraf seized power, dismissing the incompetent elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Now, an anonymous letter sent by members of the armed forces on a GHQ letterhead, criticising the government’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq and urging political leaders to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the Kargil episode of 1999, appears to have driven Musharraf and his military advisors to panic. The letter calls Musharraf and his close associates "thieves", saying that he and his clique "has been imposed on this nation." When Javed Hashmi, a member of parliament and leader of the opposition group Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD), tried to present the letter to the National Assembly speaker to be included in the parliamentary record, it was rejected. Instead, Hashmi was arrested on October 31 without the speaker’s permission and charged with sedition. True to form, a few days after his arrest, the NAB lodged a number of charges of corruption against him. The letter, written in Urdu, has since appeared in the Pakistani press, although the regime has tried to rubbish it by claiming it is a fake.

Hashmi’s arrest is a clear case of contempt of parliament, yet the speaker, far from asserting the tenuous authority of the body he leads, is keeping his head low and refusing to speak on behalf of an MP who has been held incommunicado by the military regime. While opposition politicians have protested against the shabby treatment of one of their own, Hashmi’s daughter, Maimoona, also an MP, did what comes naturally to the Pakistani elite: she appealed to Islamabad-based foreign diplomats to help rescue her father. It would have been far better if she and her parliamentary colleagues had taken to the streets to condemn the heavy-handedness of a regime that itself is illegitimate and guilty of treason by its a coup in violation of the constitution. But Pakistani politics are not constrained by legal or constitutional niceties; those who wield power – in this case the military – rule the roost.

Cracks, however, are beginning to appear in the military monolith. The GHQ letter also alleges that every general and brigadier was given vast tracts of land near Lahore before the US’s assault on Afghanistan in October 2001. Such handouts, over and above the perks generally available to military officials, were presumably intended to win their support for the sudden change in policy. Similarly, the letter states that while India held an inquiry into the Kargil battle and "sacked several generals and brigadiers," in Pakistan "no such inquiry was ever held although we lost more [people] in Kargil than we did in the 1965 and 1971 wars." Unusually for Pakistani practice, the letter refers to general Javed-ul-Husnain, who was in charge of the Kargil operations, as incompetent. He had served as Pakistan’s military attache in Washington for four years before being given command of troops in Kargil. Accusing him of links with the CIA, the letter also states that officers and soldiers working under him were furious at his "irresponsible leadership and faulty orders." The writers of the letter said that instead of his being removed on grounds of incompetence, major general Husnain was promoted to lieutenant general.

Such revelations by members of the armed forces are unusual and point to a much deeper problem. There is little doubt that not only the rank and file but also a number of officers were unhappy with the sudden change in foreign policy, especially relating to Afghanistan, and with Musharraf’s headlong appeasement of Uncle Sam. A number of military officers, including a colonel, were arrested in September. They were accused of having links with remnants of the Taliban and of supporting their operations in Afghanistan. This was even alluded to by US assistant secretary of state Richard Armitage, who retracted his statement on October 6 during a visit to Islamabad when confronted by Pakistani journalists. Armitage had said in Washington that he was not sure whether Musharraf’s "war on terrorism" was supported by the rank and file of Pakistan’s army.

There have been other problems as well; Musharraf has moved the army against the tribes of South Waziristan, especially around Wana and Angoor Adda, at the behest of the US. The porous border allows Afghan and Pakistani tribesmen to cross freely. The military operations, carried out under the pretext of the war against terrorism, have resulted in scores of tribal casualties and led to growing resentment. This will have serious repercussions for stability in Pakistan’s volatile border region, where tribesmen do not take such assaults lying down.

While Musharraf does not care for politicians or the Pakistani masses, deluding himself with the thought that he has the backing of the US, the military is a different matter. It is this realization that has prevented him from sending troops to Iraq, although the US has been leaning heavily on him to do so. He has tried to deflect attention from the impending crisis by frequently referring to the healthy foreign-exchange reserves (these are no doubt in far better shape than they were in October 1999), but there are other reasons for this than sound fiscal management, and foreign trips to create the impression that he is now an international statesman. Similarly, his advisors have led him to believe that he is the "leader" and "spokesman" for the entire Muslim world. Taken in by such ill-conceived advice, he propounded a theory of "enlightened moderation" at the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) summit in Malaysia in October. He thinks that, because he can lecture the Muslims as well as talk to the Americans, he is qualified to represent them, and actually does so. This ignores the fact that he does not even represent the people of Pakistan; indeed, it is increasingly clear that he dhas little support even in the military, his real power base, never mind speak on behalf of the Muslim world.

While Musharraf may not be in imminent danger of losing power, rumblings of discontent in the military, especially from within GHQ, must be causing him sleepless nights. He has a habit of putting on a brave face, but if the Americans feel that he can no longer deliver they can always arrange for his plane to fall out of the sky. After all, one of his predecessors, general Zia ul-Haque, together with 10 senior generals and other staff, died in a mysterious plane crash in August 1988. Even the presence of American ambassador Arnold Raphael and US military attache brigadier general Herbert Wassom on the same plane did not save Zia’s life, despite his having served America dutifully for 10 years.

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