Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pakistan's Political Situation After 'Emergency Rule'

The Telegraph announced that Pakistan's "emergency rule" was lifted by President-(former) General Pervez Musharraf last Saturday. In effect for almost a month and a half by its end, the state of emergency saw the installment of a pro-Musharraf Supreme Court and five thousand of his political opponents thrown in jail and put under house arrest. It also saw the prior, independent-minded Supreme Court, headed by Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and the "Comedian of the Year", President Musharraf, in agreement on at least one thing. Namely, that his "emergency rule" was illegal, period.

Admittedly, the situation hadn't yet plunged to depths of depravity worthy of the late dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. During his state of emergency, the last before that imposed by Musharraf, "civilians were flogged in public for drinking alcohol, politicians were tortured in squalid prisons, secret military trials were held and the death penalty was decreed for such crimes as 'arousing insecurity or despondency among the public.'" But whether or not dissidents have been executed in large numbers under this state of emergency, it has proven to be of little help to the war on Islamist militancy. Musharraf's primary goal in instituting the state of emergency was ostensibly to quell the menace of Islamic militancy, but this claim was fast forgotten in his rush not only to fulfill his other stated goal, putting out the fire of the judiciary's newly-kindled independence, but also realizing his desire to crack down on his political opponents. The Washington Times reports:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Imran Bajwa wants to know why his radio station has been off the air since a state of emergency was declared on Nov. 3 while stations controlled by radical Islamists continued to broadcast.

"This state of emergency is supposed to help [the government] battle the militants and the extremists," said Mr. Bajwa, the chief executive officer of 103 FM.

"But they have allowed Maulana Fazlullah to broadcast his hate radio for years. They close down our station on third [of] November, and they wait until last week to move against his," he said.

Pakistani officials and residents of the scenic Swat Valley told Agence France-Presse that Pakistan's best-known militant radio station was shut down during a military operation this week.

The station was blocked as Pakistani troops battled to retake parts of the valley controlled by Mullah Fazlullah, a radical cleric who used the radio to preach holy war against the government, Agence France-Presse said.

Dozens of other FM stations have been able to continue broadcasting programming that glorifies armed jihad from their strongholds in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

And it has been this way all year. As Musharraf has grappled with rising challenges to his rule on the streets and in the Supreme Court, Islamist militants were able to seize control of the Swat Valley for several months. Swat, it should be remembered, is a popular tourist getaway in the country's "settled areas". The Pakistani military just recently expelled most of the militants from the area. It was, however, only a matter of time before they tried their hand at expanding into settled territory. Al-Qaida and the Taliban (along with their Pakistani, Uzbek, and other assorted allies) enjoy a safe haven in the tribal areas, where they have reconstituted themselves. Consequently, they can freely train and recruit more fighters and plot more attacks, inside Pakistan--with its officially Western-aligned regime--and against targets around the world. Musharraf is a widely hated ruler whose immediate resignation, according to a recent poll, is desired by 67 percent of the Pakistani populace, which is unsurprisingly angry at the U.S. for propping him up as well. Low approval ratings for the U.S. might be tolerable if he actually was effective in suppressing Islamic militancy, but that is a task at which he has manifestly failed in the most abysmal way.

This is not especially shocking, however. The Pakistani regime feels that national security faces much less of a threat from the violent Islamists than from the country's enemy to the east, Hindu-dominated India: the Pakistani military has spent most of the $10-billion-plus in U.S. aid it has received over the past six years on weaponry suitable to fighting a conventional war with that country. Indeed, Pakistan actually provided the Taliban with weapons and combat troops to aid its rise to power (an event which then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto viewed favourably). Once ensconced in Afghanistan, Pakistan provided the religious militia political and economic help as well.

The same poll cited above indicates that the recently returned--to a blood-soaked homecoming--Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party would garner 30 percent of the votes if elections were held tomorrow. She and her husband face several corruption and kickback charges in various countries; her return to power probably wouldn't augur well for clean government. Bhutto's U.S.-orchestrated secret negotiations on politically working with Musharraf have not bolstered her support among the Pakistani public as of late. The incidence of these talks may be particularly damaging to Bhutto if other opposition figures and groups--such as Nawaz Sharif, a fierce foe of Musharraf, and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) party--wield her talks with the hated dictator against the former prime minister, and hint that recent flip-flopping on her part is emblematic of a base opportunism.

During Pakistan's unfolding election campaign, the U.S. and other Western governments should refrain from announcing their preference for any one candidate. Pakistanis are already angry enough at the U.S. for its longstanding support for their hated dictator, and it need not stir up a nationalist backlash by appearing to interfere in the country's elections on one candidate's behalf. The possibility of such interference is no fantastic concoction of a conspiracy theorist: it has already happened in the January 2005 parliamentary vote held in George W. Bush's Iraq. Moreover, we need look no further back in history than to the shah-of-Iran disaster to understand just how continued U.S. backing of Musharraf will blow up in our faces, perhaps sooner rather than later.

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