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The Pakistan Partnership: Washington’s Close Relationship with Pakistan’s Military Regime

Junaid Ahmad
Date Published: 
December 28, 2007
    On November 3, General-President Pervez Musharraf, a key partner in the Bush administration’s so-called “war on terror,” revealed one more time his absolute contempt for democracy and the rule of law. On this evening, Musharraf—who captured power in a military coup in October 1999—proclaimed a state of emergency, while security forces swiftly moved out across Islamabad to occupy the parliament and Supreme Court buildings, shut down private television stations, and dragged opposition activists into “preventive detention”. Junaid Ahmed looks at the situation in Pakistan and the Bush administration’s support for the Musharraf regime.

In what has widely been regarded as the military ruler’s second coup, Pakistan’s General-President Pervez Musharraf indefinitely suspended the constitution and the rights to free speech, free association, free assembly, and free movement; barred the court from its constitutional right and duty to issue any legal rulings against himself as president, against the prime minister, or against anyone doing so on their behalf; placed harsh restrictions on press freedom; and promulgated severe penalties for the “criminal act” of “ridiculing” the president, the military or any other executive, legislative or judicial body. Government forces detained indefinitely and without charge up to hundreds, if not thousands, of outspoken politicians from various parties, as well as lawyers and activists who were at the forefront of the recent mass upheaval against military rule that began in the spring of 2007. Pakistan’s military strongman removed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry from his position. Chaudhry and six other Supreme Court justices who did not accede to the general-president’s emergency decree—the so-called Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO)—were placed under house arrest. Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, a Musharraf quisling, was installed to occupy Chaudhry’s post. Judges from the provincial high courts who were unpalatable to Musharraf were also removed, with numerous justices either refusing, or not even being asked, to declare their commitment to Musharraf’s PCO. In addition, the government has tried to impose a “code of conduct” on the independent broadcast media that greatly restricts political coverage as a precondition for permitting the stations to resume their broadcasts. “Second coup” The martial law decree in combination with the firing and imprisonment of the judges and suppression of a free media, ignited a swath of mass demonstrations by lawyers, students, and activists throughout the country. The amalgam of Musharraf’s draconian measures presage the very real threat that the military will not hesitate to engage in wanton state violence should the country’s social majorities persist in their resistance. The extent of the general-president’s appetite for autocratic power and his eagerness to completely militarize the nation is displayed by his reliance on the Provisional Constitutional Order in his capacity as Chief of Pakistan’s Armed Services, as opposed to his presidential privilege to declare an emergency according to Pakistan’s 1973 constitution. The US and British governments, along with other Western states, reacted to Musharraf’s “second coup” with casual and mild reprimands, if that. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented that the proclamation of a state of emergency was “highly regrettable,” while reassuring Musharraf and the world that the US will not allow this to disturb Washington’s close relationship with Pakistan’s military regime. Since Musharraf’s political subservience to the US following 9/11, Washington has provided Pakistan with at least $10 billion, the bulk of it in military assistance. Washington’s quiescent reaction to the latest developments in Pakistan reflect the fact that Musharraf has proved to be a crucial ally of the US and its machinations in the resource-rich and geo-strategically important regions of Central Asia and the Middle East. The US has allied with one Pakistani military dictator after another dating back to the 1950s, first in the Cold War global configuration of power, and now in the “war on terror” paradigm. Under the current general-president’s rule, Pakistan has provided significant logistical support for US and NATO aims in Afghanistan, and has rendered its own torture apparatus available to the US military and intelligence services. In addition, Musharraf has reportedly permitted Washington to use Pakistani territory in war preparations against Iran, in particular by allowing US military training exercises and cross-border incursions into its western neighbor, Iran. Nevertheless, the general-president’s proclamation of emergency rule in the country is a major setback for the Bush administration. Seeing that Musharraf’s power was drastically waning in light of increasing mass dissent and protest, the US had been working tirelessly over the past couple of months to broker a deal between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the chairperson of the largest political party in Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The Bush administration’s efforts at keeping its military strongman in Islamabad in power while simultaneously promoting a civilian face to the regime in the person of Benazir Bhutto—part of the so-called “democracy promotion” in the Muslim world—were exposed as complete farce following this latest act of Musharraf. But it is not only Musharraf’s rule by martial law which has destroyed any illusion left of Washington’s commitment to democracy and freedom—the pretexts President Bush has employed in rationalizing the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The US and other Western powers realize that Musharraf’s second coup is a major risk that could provoke a blowback and a mass upheaval that would that would seriously threaten the interests of the Pakistani military, the Pakistani ruling elite as a whole, and—most importantly to Washington—the US imperial project in the region. Power sharing It was the prevention of precisely such a popular oppositional movement that had compelled the Bush administration and the British government to demand a rapprochement between Musharraf and Bhutto’s populist PPP. Just days before Musharraf’s fraudulent president election on October 6, Washington facilitated a tenuous agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto, which called for the “Daughter of the East” and her PPP to isolate themselves from the rest of the opposition and thus provide the legitimacy to the military ruler’s latest circumvention of the political-legal process. A fortnight later, Bhutto made a dramatic return to the country after having been in exile for the past few years. But after only a few hours of her return to the southern city of Karachi where she was holding a mass welcoming rally, a devastating suicide bombing targeting her managed to kill 140 people. Bhutto accused certain sections of the military and intelligence agencies, but not Musharraf directly, for being responsible for the bombing. While Bhutto strongly criticized Musharraf’s state of emergency, she is still trying to work out a power sharing agreement with Musharraf and the military. Under this agreement, in exchange for a share of political power and patronage, the PPP would give a democratic, civilian veneer for the Pakistani military’s continued behind-the-scenes domination of the country’s politics and geo-strategy—all, of course, with the blessing of Washington. Bhutto’s periodic but carefully measured calls for peaceful rallies and protest against emergency rule are primarily for the purpose of reviving her own political popularity—which understandably has been at an all-time low since her willingness to collaborate with Musharraf is an open secret. With opposition to the new authoritarian dispensation swelling and Musharraf increasingly employing naked repression, the PPP’s popular support threatens to decline severely if Bhutto does not distance herself from Pakistan’s autocracy. Nevertheless, Bhutto will continue to depend on Washington to pressure Musharraf back to the bargaining table. The US badly desires a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance because it is afraid that the present regime could further lose stability in the face of mounting public opposition. The US also wants a more powerful central government in Islamabad that could unleash with full force the wrath of the Pakistani military against the Taliban and other Islamist forces active in the nation’s remoter areas. Before Musharraf’s “turnaround” of Pakistan’s foreign policy after 9/11, these Islamists relied on the patronage of Pakistan’s rulers, particularly the military. But now, as Islamabad has reconfigured its geo-political positioning in compliance with US decree, these groups have become persona non grata for the government. At the same time, these groups have received increasing popular support by appealing to public opposition to US imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as to the social grievances arising from the abject failure of the Pakistani government to provide even elementary public services. Recent months saw the Pakistani military constantly thrown on the defensive in battles with Islamist militias. In South Waziristan along the Pakistan-Afghan border, some 200 army personnel have been held hostage for several weeks. There are incessant reports of casualties on both sides. In light of the Pakistani military’s utter disregard for democratic rights and judicial norms, it is highly possible that an all-out assault on the Taliban and Islamist groups under a Musharraf-Bhutto partnership would quickly transform into a full-blown civil war against the local population in those areas of Pakistan where Islamabad’s authority has been put into question. During the months prior to its actual declaration, Musharraf had been threatening to invoke emergency rule as a response to the erupting dissent and unrest throughout the country. This dissent has been fueled by issues such as continued and intensified authoritarian military rule, skyrocketing basic food and goods prices, rising socio-economic inequality, pervasive corruption, and the crony capitalism indulged in by the military under Musharraf and, last but not least, the general-president’s unashamed support for Washington’s wars and imperial aims in the region. What seemed to precipitate Musharraf’s decision to launch his second coup was his apparent inability to cajole the Supreme Court into providing a legal blessing to the October 6 presidential election. Musharraf theatrics The Supreme Court of Pakistan has had a sordid history of legitimating the unconstitutional interventions of military rulers. In this case, however—in response to both the mass popular uprising as well as the anger of significant sections of the Pakistani elite who became disenchanted by the military and its cronies’ monopolization of the perks of neoliberalism in Pakistan—the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Chaudhry issued several legal rulings that undermined the interests of the military and its corrupt political allies. The judges had the audacity to challenge some of the government’s most blatant violations of the constitution, including the disappearance and detention of alleged terrorist suspects without proper evidence or trial. In March of 2007, when Musharraf tried to force the chief justice to resign because he perceived the chief justice as an impediment for the military ruler’s self-election as president for another five-year term, mass demonstrations, led by the well-organized and well-disciplined lawyers, broke out all over the country. These protests finally led to a debilitating humiliation for Musharraf when a confident Supreme Court with new-found independence decreed that Chaudhry be restored as chief justice. Both preceding and following Musharraf’s re-election in October, the Supreme Court had been considering petitions questioning the constitutionality of the presidential election and Musharraf’s ability to stand as a candidate. From a strictly legal perspective, it is crystal clear that Pakistan’s constitution forbids a member of the military from running for any elected office. The constitution would also bar Musharraf’s theatrics of having the national parliament and provincial assemblies that were elected in 2002—albeit with heavy interference and manipulation by the military— select a president for a five year term right at the time when national and provincial elections should be held. Nevertheless, Musharraf still believed that by threatening the judges that he might impose emergency rule if his presidential election was declared unconstitutional, as well as marketing his own willingness to enter into a US-sponsored rapprochement with Benazir Bhutto, that he could compel the court into supporting his election. But Musharraf finally concluded that the court was going to issue a ruling against him and hence, his sudden imposition of martial law. One of the principal reasons Musharraf claimed motivated his declaration of emergency rule was the rise of terrorist attacks and other threats posed to the state and society from armed Islamic groups. These are the same groups that historically have been trained and fostered by the military and intelligence services as a means for advancing Pakistan’s geo-political machinations both on the Eastern front (jihadi groups in Kashmir) as well as on the Western front (the Taliban in Afghanistan). But the major part Musharraf’s rationalization for this latest usurpation of power is the accusation that “some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature.” The judiciary is claimed to have hindered the battle against terrorism by commanding the release of persons detained without charge as well as generally undermining the Pakistani state by rulings that call for modest checks on the government and military. These accusations are not just a justification for the rising authoritarianism of Musharraf’s regime. They present a real threat that the military government intends to employ its repressive apparatus to advance Washington’s agenda of routing out “Islamic extremism”—basically any opposition to NATO’s disastrous and bloody occupation of Afghanistan and the accelerated implementation of neoliberalism in Pakistan—while crushing the growing popular protest at the lack of democratic rights and rising social inequality. Boiling point The Pakistani military has a notorious history of brutality, including the execution of Benazir Bhutto’s father, the deposed prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis in the military’s unsuccessful campaign to subdue the then East Pakistan’s war of independence; the state violence meted out to the peoples of the province of Balochistan who have been struggling for more equitable rights within the colonial relationship that the federal government maintains with them; and most recently in the areas bordering Afghanistan, North and South Waziristan. Musharraf has stated that he would resign as army chief once his presidency was legitimized and, because of pressure from Washington and Bhutto’s PPP, has agreed to hold national parliamentary elections in January. Given that Musharraf and his cronies will retain their control over the nation’s most dominant and powerful institution, the military, and emergency rule has no end in sight, the latest pledge becomes meaningless. Resistance to Musharraf’s rule continues to emerge from various sections of the population. There are the Islamists—both the moderate political parties as well as the more militant “jihadis”—who continue to be vehemently oppose Musharraf’s collaboration with the US in waging war against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the so-called Taliban hiding in the NWFP province. There is also frustration that comes from within sections of the business elite who resent the parasitic role that the military has played in the economy since Musharraf’s coming to power in 1999—with the generals and their cronies being the main beneficiaries of the free market reforms at the expense of the traditional and emerging entrepreneurial class. Sections of the middle class are also pursuing more economic opportunities for themselves and an end to cronyism and corruption by the establishment of the rule of law. The supposedly high growth rates and booming economy that Musharraf speaks of constantly have only lined the pockets of a thin layer of the population. Market reforms, including privatization and massive cuts to state subsidies and services, have taken a devastating toll on the lives of ordinary working people, and they form the bulk of those completely alienated from the present regime. Washington’s support for Musharraf has been critical in propping up and prolonging his dictatorship. The Bush administration’s responsibility for the continued crimes and real possibility of a new wave of state terror in Pakistan are no less than the role of the general-president’s himself. But given how embedded the US is in the region, and how fearful it is that things may get out of control, it is entirely possible that Washington may consider removing Musharraf. That is, if Musharraf displays intransigence in finalizing a deal with Bhutto, the US might opt to find another even more pliant general to share power with Bhutto, in an attempt to preempt a popular Pakistani uprising against both dictatorship and US imperial penetration. Political and social contradictions in Pakistan, a country of 160 million, seem to be reaching a boiling point and the US may very well have to deal with a predicament similar to that after Iranian Revolution nearly three decades ago. About the Author

    Junaid Ahmad is the President of National Muslim Law Students Association ( and a longtime activist on issues related to corporate-led globalization, HIV/AIDS, gender justice, militarism and war, and Palestine. He is a member of the Peoples Rights Movement ( ), a progressive political confederation of social movements committed to structural changes in the Pakistani state, widespread social change, and a fundamental reconfiguration of the global relations of power. Junaid is also an organizer with the National Interfaith Committee for Social Justice and executive board member of the Domestic Violence Resource Project (DVRP).