Business Standard, 6th Nov 07
Most commentators are being short sighted in viewing the drama being played out in Pakistan as a political struggle for power in Islamabad. In the immediate term the political deal making, Musharraf’s declaration of emergency, and the inevitable arrests and counter-agitation would make it seem that. But broadening one’s gaze to events across Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), growing radicalization across the country, and a security and political establishment that is cracking under the stress, it is clear that battle has been joined not just for power in Islamabad but for the very soul of Pakistan.
The man at the centre of the spectacle, President General Pervez Musharraf, is one of the few who understand how completely the game has changed. The jehadi and tribal lashkars that he and his predecessors forged into convenient tools are now his most implacable enemies. The military that has shaped Pakistan’s political worldview, and which still remains the country’s political arbiter, is suddenly shaky and increasingly unpopular. The arch-enemy, India, seems almost irrelevant; in an ironic twist of symbolism, India and Pakistan are playing cricket as Pakistanis turn on Pakistanis.
For the average Pakistani, it’s suddenly become an unfamiliar world --- the spiralling violence, a breakdown in law and order, the widely resented use of soldiers, paramilitary forces and policemen against their own countrymen in the tribal NWFP, the replacement of Islamic brotherhood with a humiliating subservience to the US, and the abandonment of the Kashmir cause for no understandable reason.
For decades, the Pakistani worldview has been comfortingly simple: India was the big enemy, which undermined Pakistan around the globe; Kashmir had been snatched from Pakistan and must be recovered. Islam was being targeted by Western value systems and Pakistan must join hands with Islamic countries in fighting for their religion; the foot soldiers of jehad were being produced in Pakistan; that was all right as long as it worked for Pakistan and the jehadis didn’t make unreasonable demands for a major share of political power. Pakistani politicians were corrupt and venal and must be kept in check by the patriotic and valorous military.
But what discerning Pakistanis now see clearly --- and Musharraf, through harsh experience, has joined that group --- is that the multiple contradictions that form Pakistan’s psyche are now in open conflict with one another. Pakistan is at war with itself and every side is losing. There are no comforting “good guys” to back; the picture is uniformly grey.
Musharraf’s evolving thought processes can be seen in the NWFP. For decades, tribal lashkars have done Islamabad’s dirty work, invading Kashmir in 1947 and again in 1965 and backstopping the Afghanistan jehad against the Soviets in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, Musharraf, like the rest of the Pakistan army found it convenient to leave them alone, pumping in Islamist fervour to add an edge to the tool. But after Taliban moved headquarters to the NWFP and Quetta, confronting and bloodying the Pakistan Army, Musharraf signed a virtual surrender pact with the militants, blaming their growing radicalisation on the presence of US troops in Afghanistan. Now, with suicide terrorism and targeted assassination streaming out of the NWFP, Musharraf has concluded that the Pakistan Army will have to clean up, regardless of the cost in soldiers’ lives. His recently retired number two, General Ehsan-ul-Haq, admitted on Saturday that, “we consider extremism and terrorism to be the highest-priority threat to the security and well-being of Pakistan.”
That’s where that contradiction runs into another. The growing Islamisation in Pakistani society, initiated by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, one of Musharraf’s predecessors, has critically hobbled Pakistan’s army. The evidence would be funny if it wasn’t so alarming. The “kidnapping” of almost 250 fully-armed Pakistani soldiers by militants in the NWFP and mass desertions by paramilitary forces and policemen seem to indicate that the Pakistani forces are far from ready to fight this battle. The generals understand there is no choice; but the soldiers are not convinced.
Musharraf’s understanding of what must be done has come desperately late, at a time when he has squandered the goodwill of the average Pakistani and his credibility lies in tatters. He has squandered political capital in image building exercises and in unnecessary battles with the judges. If Musharraf’s only remaining support base, the Pakistan Army, proves unwilling to fight what will be a virtual and bloody civil war against radicalisation and fundamentalism, another leader will replace him.
Whoever heads the government of Pakistan will have to confront these issues. While Benazir Bhutto has reached the same conclusion as Musharraf, she will have at her disposal the same unwilling implements that are failing the General. For these reasons, America has continued its somewhat diluted support to Musharraf and India has reacted with nothing more biting than the hope that things will get better soon.
Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has suggested that Musharraf could be “Pakistan’s Shah of Iran”, swept out of power in an Islamist revolution that will confront the US thereafter. But now America’s favourite nightmare --- nuclear weapons in the hands of Islamists --- may not even need a revolution. Nawaz Sharif is forging alliances with the Islamist parties, a Nawaz - Islamist right wing victory would see the realisation of the US’s worst fears.