Fatal Friendships --- Pakistan and America four decades and four dictators later

by Pervez Hoodbhoy

Appearing at a press conference in military uniform in late August, General Pervez Musharraf declared he would remain president and army chief for the next five years, would have the right to name the heads of the three military services, and emphasized no parliament could overturn his 29 amendments to PakistanŐs constitution. "This is part of the Constitution," he declared, waving his hand in the air. "I am hereby making it part of the Constitution." Convinced of his sagacity and goodwill, Musharraf says he does not want to rule, but must because no one else can reform Pakistan. "Democratic dictatorship", he says, is what the country needs.

The reaction in Washington was mild --- no talk of regime change here. "He's still tight with us in the war against terror, and that's what I appreciate," Bush told reporters while visiting Squires Mountain in Oregon. "He understands that we've got to keep al-Qaida on the run. ... And I appreciate his strong support."

Indeed, squeamishness has never afflicted AmericaŐs Pakistan policy. As Deng Xiaoping once famously declared "it doesnŐt matter whether the cat is black or white so long as it catches mice". Today AmericaŐs mouse-catcher is flying high.

General Musharraf is the fourth Pakistani general in forty years to seize power. In 1965, General Ayub Khan --- a staunch anti-communist --- brought to his nation the dubious distinction of being, in John Foster DullesŐs words, AmericaŐs "most allied ally". Then, in 1971 Richard Nixon rallied to the defence of General Yahya Khan, who had ran amok and led the country into a catastrophic civil war. But it was the coup of 1977 by General Zia ul Haq which was to have the most profound influence, not only upon Pakistan but all over the world. Zia brought a messianic zeal to redefine Pakistan as an Islamic state run by Sharia (Islamic Law) and Islamicize its institutions. The US was not enthusiastic, but then the Soviets walked into Afghanistan in 1979.

From the early 80Ős onwards, Pakistan was to be the hub of a thriving global jihad industry. Financed for a decade by the US and Saudi Arabia, American strategy to drive the Evil Empire out of Afghanistan required marshalling the forces of Islam from Algeria and Morocco to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Pakistan Army participated enthusiastically --- "Islam, Pakistan, Jihad" were soon emblazoned on banners at recruitment centers, beards proliferated, promotions went with piety, and few could be seen to miss Friday prayers. A new ethos was in creation; this was to be an army not just for Pakistan, but to fight the enemies of Islam everywhere.

After the Soviet Union withdrew, and then self-destructed, jihad went into temporary limbo. But, like any military-industrial complex, it too found excellent reasons for not doing away with itself. Fortunately for those initially recruited by the CIA and PakistanŐs secret agencies, the Pakistan Army still had plenty of use for jihad. It wanted "strategic depth" (a friendly backyard) for itself in Afghanistan, and sought to wrest Kashmir from Indian occupation without all-out war. Both required setting up a complex infrastructure of Islamic militant groups which freely roamed the country, but whose existence could be officially denied. Some were closely connected with Al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Then came 9/11. Faced by a United States bent upon bloody vengeance, PakistanŐs military establishment scurried to join the US-led coalition and take up arms against its former creation, the Taliban and their Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the pious, Mullah Omar). Osama T-shirts disappeared from bazaars in Peshawar. This straightforward betrayal was resisted only by a few senior officers with an Islamic bent. They were quickly rendered irrelevant. General Musharraf knew the alternative. In all likelihood the Americans would "have done an Iraq on Pakistan", as one highly placed member of the foreign ministry conceded to me in the week after September 11. He was probably right.

Today, the Pakistan Army's jihad philosophy lies buried under the rubble of the World Trade Centre. The Pakistan Army has taken upon itself a brand new role. The transition has not been painless. Bloody encounters with Al-Qaida, beginning after Tora Bora, have exposed internal contradictions. As casualties mount, and hostile tribal reaction to joint US/Pakistani search-and-destroy operations on the western border increases, officers and men are asking: why?

Inevitably the anger - visible or otherwise - at having to fight America's war against Al-Qaida and the Taliban focuses on Musharraf, a man who received high praise from the United Jihad Council after secret incursions and battles fought against India around Kargil in Kashmir two years ago. Musharraf's successful coup was warmly welcomed by right-wing religious groups in Pakistan. But today he lives in mortal danger, aware that he is silently stalked by the forces that once sided with him.

To be sure, Musharraf claims a reform agenda and the Americans are happy to believe him. But he is no Gorbachev, nor is he a Kamal Ataturk. All of his attempts at reform arose under international pressure. Feeble at best, Musharraf's reforms invariably avoid the type of structural changes Pakistan needs to break out of its recurring, worsening crisis.

In fifteen years, PakistanŐs population will exceed that of the United States. The economy, which as grown at around 3% only in recent years, is hopelessly incapable of providing jobs to the exploding population. The education system --- which cannot offer any school for 4 out of 10 children and only poor quality schools to the rest --- contributes directly to the growth of madrassas promoting jihad and militarism. The problems are vastly compounded by a huge military establishment.

All countries have armies, but in Pakistan things are reversed. Here it is the army that has a country. Defence expenditures consume between one-third and one-half of the national budget. Over the decades, senior military officers have been transformed into powerful landlords through grants of choice agricultural lands and real estate. Many, if not most, public corporations are headed by retired officers.

Given General Musharraf's diminishing domestic popularity some here worry about his survival But a real threat "from the street" seems impossible. Pakistan's public, disillusioned by Benazir Bhutto's and Nawaz Sharif's kleptocratic regimes, is far too wretched and ambivalent to rise up. Even heavily armed militant groups are no match for the state's firepower. While intrigues and coups are always possible, Musharraf's survival is likely because he won't touch the enormous powers and privileges of the institution he heads: the Pakistani military.

PakistanŐs stability --- and MusharrafŐs political and physical survival --- have now become contingent upon US support. Ironically, fate has yoked his survival to George W. Bush, who could not recall the name of this Pakistani leader at the time of the US presidential elections. Indeed, after Pakistan was declared a US ally, all earlier sanctions were lifted, and international financial institutions rescheduled debts and gave new loans. Currently foreign exchange reserves are a 700% higher than before 9/11. However, this by itself does not indicate that the economy has improved --- manufacturing has steadily decreased in the past year and fear of instability has resulted in essentially zero foreign direct investment.

True, General Musharraf is not a religious fanatic and, unlike his predecessor General Zia, has not exercised brute repression. It is also true that his sudden removal --- or possible assassination --- would be disastrous in a situation where Islamic militant groups wait in the shadows. But PakistanŐs army is part of the countryŐs problem; it cannot be a solution. It must relinquish control over civilian institutions, cut back its budget, and move Pakistan away from militarism and war. The US must realize that its support to PakistanŐs former dictators --- all for reasons of expediency --- ultimately boomeranged. But shall it learn from history?

Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

index page