Pressure-cooker Pakistan needs a safety valve

Military is the problem

Steaming Pakistan needs a democratic safety valve

Brahma Chellaney

Times of India, January 3, 2008

After having fretted over a rising pro-democracy tide, Pakistan’s ruling military can expect to be the main gainer from Benazir Bhutto’s killing at the very public park where the 1951 assassination of the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, paved the way for the military to step into politics. Just as Pakistan become increasingly Islamized following the 1979 execution of Bhutto’s father by the general who deposed him, the daughter’s assassination will help reinforce Islamist radicalization under continued military rule. In fact, she met her violent end three kilometres from where her father was hanged.

With Pakistan’s politics teetering on a knife’s edge, the main loser will be Musharraf, who did too little to protect Bhutto or to rein in the jihadists, some with continuing cosy ties to his establishment. Given that authorities identified the two December 2003 assassination attempts on him as an inside job by charging four junior army officers and six air force men, suspicion is bound to linger that regime-linked elements bumped off Bhutto, the most likely agent of political change in a country tired of its ruler. Just days before her murder, Bhutto said in a Washington Post interview that she was concerned that “some of the people around him [Musharraf] have sympathy for the militants” and “shocked to see how embedded” the state support for extremists is.

Musharraf’s credibility was in tatters even before the murder, but now his days in power appear more numbered than ever. In its 60-year history, Pakistan has already had four military takeovers and four Constitutions. With the assassination dimming the possibility of a democratic transition in a country where governments have always been booted out but never been voted out, a new military face could easily take over power on the pretext of saving an imploding state. Such a takeover will become certain if violent protests persist, the two main political parties shun Musharraf, and the US (a key party in Pakistani politics) moves away from the dictator it has propped up for long.

The likely perpetuation of military rule is not good news for international or regional security or for Pakistan’s own future, given how the country has sunk deeper in fundamentalism, extremism and militarism since the last coup. While the military will continue to defend its holding the reins of power as a necessary evil in the service of a greater good, its political role will only keep Pakistan on the boil. For more than eight years, Musharraf has justified his dictatorship as vital to bring stability to Pakistan even as his rule has taken it to the brink. Today, a nuclear-armed, terror-exporting Pakistan has become a problem not just regionally but globally.

Make no mistake: It is the military that created and nurtured the forces of jihad and helped Islamist groups gain political space at the expense of mainstream parties. Musharraf’s record is glaring: He welcomed with open arms the three extremists India freed to end the hijacking of Flight IC-814, helping one to form the terrorist Jaish-e-Mohammed and harbouring another until he kidnapped and murdered reporter Daniel Pearl. Musharraf has filled Pakistani jails more with democracy activists than with jihadists.

Without the military’s iron grip on power being broken and the rogue ISI being tamed, Pakistan will continue to menace regional and international security. What steaming Pakistan needs is a safety valve in the form of democratic empowerment of its restive masses. But what military rule has created is a pressure-cooker society congenial to the growth of extremism.

Getting the military to return to the barracks, admittedly, has become more difficult. The spoils of power have fattened the military, which now controls fields as varied as agriculture and education and runs businesses ranging from banks to bakeries. Add to that the new draconian powers that have been retained despite Musharraf’s lifting of the six-week emergency rule — declared to engineer his “re-election” as president. Yet another factor is US aid, which is so munificent that the Pakistan military — the world’s fifth largest — now relies on Washington for a quarter of its entire budget.

US policy, sadly, remains wedded to the Pakistan military. That needs to end, along with Bush’s misbegotten effort to help put a civilian mask on Musharraf, before a disastrous Pakistan policy starts to match the Iraq folly. Bhutto’s murder is a horrific reminder that unravelling Pakistan’s jihad culture won’t be easy but is essential. The battle against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing Pakistan’s blood-soaked polity and de-radicalizing its society, or else Pakistan — Jinnah’s “moth-eaten travesty” — could itself unravel.

Musharraf once boasted that he is like a cat with nine lives. But given that he has already survived nine assassination attempts, he may be living on borrowed time. Before yet another general makes a power-grab, the international community under US leadership needs to step in to get the present ruler to cede power to an all-party government that inspires public trust and can hold free and fair elections. Musharraf is terminally unpopular and highly vulnerable at this juncture, and to let go of this opportunity would be to allow Pakistan to slip into a vortex of endless violence and terrorism. Having exiled others in the past, Musharraf should now be made to go into exile himself.

The writer is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.

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