Revolution#111, December 9, 2007

From A World to Win News Service

The Pakistan Crisis and General Musharraf’s Second Coup

November 26, 2007. A World to Win News Service. Pakistan, never a calm country even in ordinary times, has been in even more intense turmoil since General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s president and head of its army, declared a state of emergency.

The only reason Musharraf’s emergency rule is not more commonly labeled military dictatorship is that he took all authority into his own hands in his person as civilian president, not as head of the armed forces, although it was a military coup that made him president in 1999.

Emergency rule meant the suspension of the constitution, including the right of an arrested person to be informed of the charges against them and to have a lawyer, freedom of movement and other individual rights. Although most people in Pakistan have never enjoyed any rights at all, in fact, if not in words, this gave Musharraf the power to act arbitrarily against anyone. Most importantly, it allowed him to dismiss all the Supreme Court judges and detain its chief judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Then he launched a clampdown on opposition political forces, human rights activists and lawyers. Privately owned TV stations were forced off the air for a time, and when they began broadcasting again they faced severe restrictions on what they were allowed to show and say. Nearly 6,000 people were arrested and detained; despite the announcement of the release of 3,000 people on November 21, several thousand more are still in jail and the arrests of journalists and students are continuing.

Musharraf justified emergency rule in the name of fighting Islamic terrorism, but as many observers have pointed out, he has actually focused the repression on non-fundamentalist forces that have dared oppose his regime, including a section of the masses, while also using his powers to maneuver against and extract deals from his two main political rivals, the ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both as much identified as Musharraf himself with the Islamicization of Pakistan.

The Purpose of This Coup

Within hours of his declaration of emergency rule, General Musharraf went on state TV to justify it. He said, “Pakistan stands at a dangerous crossroads and the union of Pakistan is in danger.” Terrorism and extremism, he continued, have reached “extreme levels” and the “functioning of the government is paralyzed at the moment”.  The most important problem, he concluded, was this: “The law enforcement agencies are demoralized especially in Islamabad and have given up hope because their officers are being punished. We have a demoralized force with low morale.”

Most people would agree with the general’s assessment of the situation, given the humiliations and setbacks his regime has faced over the last few months. The demoralization of his armed forces became all too obvious recently when 300 soldiers voluntarily surrendered to the Islamic fundamentalists they had been sent to fight in the country’s North-West region.

Musharraf blamed this situation on the Supreme Court and its head Chaudhry. The government was paralyzed and the armed forces demoralized, he said, because “All of the senior representatives of the government are constantly going to the courts—especially to the Supreme Court.” And, “They are being giving sentences.” Musharraf also blamed the court for raising obstacles to the fight against the fundamentalists by ordering their release. Further, he said, “The media—–certain channels and certain programs on certain channels—has also contributed to this downslide, this negative thinking, this negative projection. And I am saddened by this too.”

The general did not hide his bitterness over the events of last spring, which turned out disastrously for him. He sacked Chaudhry once before, in March, accusing the Supreme Court head of corruption. This move sparked a protest by lawyers and human rights activists that turned into a movement and gained momentum. At the movement’s peak in May, when the judge was to appear at a rally in Karachi, Musharraf unleashed the thugs of the MQM (Mutahida Qaumi Movement, one of the rare groups to support him) to disrupt the event and assault the crowd, killing 49 people. Chaudhry was unable to even leave the Karachi airport and the rally was cancelled.

In May shops and markets in all major cities closed to protest the attack in Karachi. Further demonstrations against Musharraf continued all over Pakistan. Finally the Supreme Court came to a decision that the sacking of Chaudhry was illegal, and reinstated him as its chief justice. While the anti-Musharraf movement in general and in particular the determined struggle of the lawyers in the streets was not the only factor in this reversal, it certainly gave heart to some of the judges and especially Chaudhry to stand more firmly against Musharraf’s arbitrary actions. For example, the high court ruled against Musharraf’s deportation of Sharif a few hours after his return from exile in Saudi Arabia. The last straw came when the Supreme Court threatened a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto, openly brokered by the U.S., by refusing to drop the corruption charges facing Bhutto when she returned home from exile in Dubai.

Yet in his emergency rule speech, Musharraf’s main accusation against the court was that it had become an obstacle to the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. “Terrorists which had been declared ‘Black’ by the Intelligence agencies, which means ‘confirmed terrorists’, were released by the Court,” he said. Here it is not possible to fully examine Musharraf’s contradictory relations with various Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist forces and the ways he has both allied with and fought various groups of them at different times. The point to be noted is that he is openly arguing that anyone his intelligence agencies label “black” is automatically a “confirmed terrorist” and there is no need for any further legal proceedings.

Since September 11, 2001 and especially in the last couple of years Pakistan has been the scene of many “disappearances”. The paths of many who have gone missing have been traced back to the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and other intelligence agencies. Often people are picked up on the road, at bus stops, workplaces and other locations. Their families are never informed; they simply go without news of their loved ones for months. Some of the “disappeared” do have Islamic fundamentalist backgrounds. But many do not; in fact, they have not been involved in any religious activity. Many are opposition political activists. Many more of these cases are related to insurgency aiming for local autonomy in the eastern province of Baluchistan. Some are lawyers or human rights activists or just political opponents. Under pressure from families, in January 2007 the Supreme Court took the extremely lukewarm step of ordering the agencies to try harder to “find” 41 people listed as missing. Subsequently half of them were quietly released. These are some of the people Musharraf is referring to when he complains about the court’s release of “confirmed terrorists”.

The Unfolding of Crises in Pakistan

In the course of the last few years Pakistan has leapt from one crisis to another, and this is one of the most serious. What are the dynamics and features of this instability?

One factor is geopolitical: Pakistan is situated in a very intense part of the world, and this is a very intense moment in world affairs. Pakistan is the gate to three critical regions of the world. To the north is Central Asia, to the east India and South Asia, and, most importantly, to the west is the Middle East. Another is the role this country has played in its 60 years of existence, including its contentious relations with India (which the UK and U.S. wanted it to counterbalance) and its history as a U.S. client state during the Cold War, including the forging of a special interrelationship with Afghanistan. These factors alone would make the country very volatile and vulnerable to events in neighboring states.

Now there is a new element in this: the deepening crisis in the Middle East and especially the shockwaves of a threatened war against Iran. We have already seen how developments in Turkey, Kurdistan and Iraq are being conditioned by the U.S.’s drive to restructure the Middle East. This is certainly at least as true for Pakistan, a major U.S. “non-NATO” ally, as American policy-makers call it, assigned an indispensable role in carrying out its plans in the region.

This has led the U.S. to back particular social and political forces within the country, and to play a would-be decisive role in its politics. This is far from the only reason for the country’s woes—imperialist domination acts through the country’s own reactionary ruling classes—but it is a major reason why Pakistan has gone from crisis to crisis since its inception 60 years ago, and why these crises, in different forms, have become increasingly intense in the last few years.

The government has faced an ethnic insurgency in Baluchistan, a western province with massive oil and gas reserves, for more than two years. The army’s war against the people of this area is still going on. The vast majority of the abductions registered by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan are from Baluchistan.

The North-West Frontier Province has been a main theatre of the activities of the Islamic fundamentalists. Nearby Waziristan, allegedly a safe heaven for Taliban fighters from adjoining Afghanistan and some Al-Qaida activists, is out of government control. Recently the Islamic fundamentalists have extended their armed movement further away from the border, to Swat, where previously they had no bases and little activity. The Pakistan government has officially been involved in fight to curb the Islamic fundamentalists in the North-West Frontier area. However, there was a 10-month ceasefire between the government and the armed tribes of Waziristan.

Despite Musharraf’s efforts, this cease-fire came to an end in July, not long after Army commandos stormed the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) mosque complex in Islamabad, killing hundreds of people. The mosque had been occupied by a group of Islamic fundamentalists. General Musharraf was determined to use this crisis to re-establish the authority he had lost in the conflict with the Supreme Court during the previous months. But instead of restoring the general’s authority and resolving his problems, this bloody operation only plunged his regime into deeper crisis, giving rise to a string of unprecedented suicide bombings and other acts of retaliation by Islamic fundamentalists forces. Such activities have been going on sporadically in Pakistan since 2001, especially in relation to the religious strife between Shia and Sunni forces, but the level has been tolerable for Musharraf’s government. Since the Red Mosque massacre, suicide bombings have increased dramatically. The situation became even worse when not long afterward tribal fighters in north Waziristan unilaterally scrapped their ceasefire agreement with the government and began to directly attack the armed forces sent there. So far, the army has completely failed to bring this area under control.

Musharraf’s Latest Showdown

These separate but intertwined political crises and the underlying social fault lines have brought the regime to the brink of collapse. This poses unprecedented problems and even dangers for the U.S. and its regional interests and aims. If the Bush regime has not acted more decisively, however, it may be because there is no clear solution. Until now, they seem to have focused on trying to patch up the situation as best as possible under the circumstances.

Their main patch, so far, at least, has been Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister in the late 1980s and 1990s. Although she is currently being promoted as a secular figure, at least for Western audiences, when she ran the government she did nothing to reverse the growing Islamicization of the country (including the infamous Hudood anti-women Islamic laws) and the military-fundamentalist alliance; in fact, she presided over the bringing of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan—at the behest of the U.S. Until recently, as long as the Musharraf regime seemed stable, the U.S. ignored her efforts to curry American favor. Then suddenly Condoleezza Rice took Bhutto under her wing and announced that the U.S. wanted an arrangement where Musharraf would take off his army uniform and be magically transformed into a civilian president (while retaining his post as commander-in-chief, like civilian presidents in many countries). Bhutto would be his Prime Minister and by putting an end to “one-man rule” thus magically transform the widely hated and isolated regime into something more stable. The UK also backed this scheme.

Some Bhutto apologists argue that she had to accept such a deal because she could not govern without the support of the army. A more truthful way of putting it is that she would help give a basically military regime a civilian face. The future of this deal is still unclear, but it’s reasonable to think that Musharraf came to doubt whether Bhutto could really rescue him, and therefore whether such a power-sharing arrangement had much to offer him. American policy-makers may well have despaired about whether such an arrangement would “save” the situation in terms of their interests, and even whether or not the regime would be strengthened or weakened by it. There can be no doubt that a strong regime—under the U.S. baton, of course—is the apple of the U.S.’s eye.

This power-sharing agreement came under tremendous pressure from different corners of Pakistan reality. These pressures led to Musharraf’s second coup. Whether it was launched with the approval of the imperialists, and especially which imperialists, is not clear. There is reason to think that the UK may have been more enthusiastic than the U.S. about bringing back Bhutto and far less forgiving than the U.S. about Musharraf’s coup. (Britain’s “interests” and influence in Pakistan run a close second to the U.S.) But what is certain is that it was another attempt and maybe a desperate final attempt by Musharraf and the army to restore and consolidate the authority they have seen leak away over the last few years, and put him in a stronger position before any further compromise or power-sharing—which might work out just fine once Musharraf’s supremacy was assured.

From the beginning the coup has been a big risk. It could strengthen Musharraf’s position and allow him to go forward with the Bhutto deal, or it could terminate the whole power-sharing deal, and more than that, make the situation for the regime even worse. Even if the coup was not pre-approved by Bush and his administration, Musharraf probably calculated that at this moment the U.S. would not go against him and that they had no better alternative. Not launching a coup and leaving things as they were might make the situation worse for him and them.

This orientation was expressed by Tariq Azim, minister of state for information: “They would rather have a stable Pakistan—albeit with some restrictive norms—than have more democracy prone to fall in the hands of extremists… Given the choice, I know what our friends would choose.” (This and following quotes from International Herald Tribune, November 4, “U.S. likely to continue Pakistan aid,” by David Sanger and David Rohde)

The U.S. and the Coup

The Bush administration insisted they had no role in the coup and even that they had discouraged and warned him against such a move. The strongest criticism of Musharraf came from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called the coup “disturbing” during a news conference. But he failed to condemn the declaration of emergency rule and noted that “Pakistan is a country of great strategic importance to the United States and a key partner in the war on terror…We are mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counter-terrorism efforts.”

Secretary of State Rice of the U.S. also refused to condemn or criticize the state of emergency. Her biggest threat was that the U.S. would review its aid to Pakistan, but she made it clear that the military assistance allocated to the so-called war on terrorism was not going to be affected. She said Bush’s first concern was “to protect America and protect American citizens by continuing to fight against terrorists.”

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visited Pakistan and held talks with Musharraf, Bhutto and Asfaq Kiani, Musharraf’s designated successor as army chief when the general resigns. (Identified by Western media as pro-American and a “moderate”, Kiani is the head of military intelligence and has been called the “architect” of Pakistan’s U.S.-supported bringing of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.) Before going to Pakistan, Negroponte told an American Congressional Committee, “The bottom line is, there’s no question that we Americans have a stake in Pakistan.” (IHT, November 7)

The man couldn’t put it more bluntly. His actions were no less blunt: according to reports that Negroponte himself later verified, he spent the most time talking with Kiani. The U.S. may not be betting its whole stake on Musharraf’s political survival, but it is determined that whatever happens it will still have the Pakistani army, which can be assured of continuing to receive the lion’s share of the nearly $1 billion the U.S. sends Pakistan yearly.

But while holding back in criticizing Musharraf’s acts of repression (until the last week or so when the coup seemed to be producing bad results), in their remarks on Pakistan U.S. and UK officials emphasized that he must hold elections. That would satisfy U.S. concerns about democracy and they wouldn’t have to worry about anything else. It doesn’t matter if the constitution is suspended and the army and Musharraf do whatever they want to. It doesn’t matter if they arrest and harass and bully millions of masses and tens of thousands of opponents and protesters. In his public remarks about the situation in Pakistan, Bush failed to condemn Musharraf’s emergency rule and did not express the slightest displeasure about the reign of terror. He said that his message to Musharraf was, “We believe strongly in elections, and that you ought to have elections soon, and you need to take off your uniform…You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time.” (IHT, November 7) Rice, in reiterating this position, said, “We have a very clear view that the elections need to take place on time, which would mean the beginning of the year.”

This is, in fact, what Musharraf has said will happen. In his speech justifying emergency rule, Musharraf concluded with this argument: “In my view, these three pillars of state—the judiciary, executive and legislative—must be harmonious. That is the only way to get the government back on track. Before we completely fall apart.” All of his actions, Musharraf “assured” the people of Pakistan, have but one aim: to remove the “hurdles on the path to democracy.” (All the quotations from Musharraf were translated by Barnett Rubin and posted on the Informed Comment Global Affairs blog—

The insistence on elections is so that the U.S. can claim that promoting democracy is the essence of their plan for the Middle East and cover up all the atrocities that have been going on in Pakistan, especially in the last few years, with the help of the U.S. But the irony is that even if we were to accept the American rulers’ claim that holding elections means the people can exert their will—a particularly ridiculous notion in a country where foreign powers have always had the last word—the results of this election they have been so eager to see were never supposed to be determined by the ballot boxes. Elections were planned to legitimize decisions that had already been made in advance by the U.S. and UK imperialists. Musharraf’s explanation that his coup was aimed at getting rid of “hurdles” to a successful election—conflicts within the state and ruling classes, and inconvenient opposition from sections of the people—is true if understood in that light.

Up until now, no informed observer has doubted that this has meant Musharraf as president, Bhutto as prime minister and Kiani as army chief of staff. Whether this arrangement will have to be modified or even abandoned is not clear right now, but that changes nothing about how the imperialists seek to settle the matter.

It’s no surprise that the masses of people in Pakistan hate the U.S. imperialists so much. That is another factor in this mix, one that so far, unfortunately, has been channeled mainly through parties run by various factions of the ruling classes or Islamic fundamentalists. Independent of what the U.S. and General Musharraf might wish, events developing after the imposition of emergency rule have the potential to endanger their whole plan, and maybe more. Every attempt by the ruling powers and their American backers to pull the country out of crisis has brought deeper crisis. And the world situation that makes a stable, U.S.-dominated regime in Pakistan so important to the U.S.—including the threat of an American military attack on Iran—makes more shockwaves very likely.

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