Pakistan Teeters

“We’re watching a lot of cookery programmes and cricket!” cried one of my oldest Pakistani friends when I arrived at her house a week after General Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule.

All Pakistan’s private news channels were taken off air on Saturday November 3rd when the general announced his second coup. Yet fuzzy TV screens aside, it doesn’t much look like a state of emergency. The only sign of anything amiss in Islamabad is the barrier of concertina wire across Constitution Avenue manned by bored-looking police.

Behind the barricades are three gleaming white buildings – the parliament, presidency and the Supreme Court. It was what was going on inside the marble walls of the latter that prompted Musharraf’s dramatic move, fearing that the court was about to declare his presidency invalid.

Pakistan’s military rulers have long been accustomed to a compliant judiciary giving them legal cover for their constitution-suspending activities. So when the country’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry started displaying an independent streak earlier this year, the general saw it as insubordination and tried to sack him. Chaudhry responded by launching a tour of the country, attracting hundreds of thousands of supporters, and was reinstated in July.

But it was clearly only a matter of time. To anyone that would listen, Musharraf accused the Supreme Court of “judicial terrorism”. When two of the judges warned him that the bench was about to invalidate his re-election, Musharraf declared the emergency.

In a rambling address to the nation, he claimed to be acting to stop the country from takeover by extremists and even compared himself to Abraham Lincoln.

But  instead of jihadi leaders it was barristers and judges who were placed under arrest. While Burma saw saffron-robed monks pouring onto the streets, in Pakistan it was black-suited lawyers, many of them balding, potbellied and bespectacled, marching through cities, chanting polite slogans. The police responded with teargas and batons.

According to Hina Jilani, a leading Pakistani lawyer and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights, 3000 lawyers were arrested – around a quarter of all lawyers in Pakistan. The initial winner seemed to be the glamorous Oxford-educated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

The former Prime Minister had been badly tainted by a deal with Musharraf that had seen corruption charges against her dropped enabling her to return home after more than eight years in exile. But there was admiration for her bravery when her bus was bombed killing 140 people. And Musharraf’s reversion to type meant she suddenly found herself once again cast as the heroine taking on the dictator just as she did 20 years ago. Soon foreign TV cameras were trailing her everywhere.

Most Pakistanis are not so sure – after all they’ve seen her as Prime Minister twice before. “They’re all as bad as each other – military, politicians, they just want power so they can make money” was a typical view from a newspaper seller in Jinnah market.
Pakistanis might be resigned but Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule sent policymakers in Washington and Whitehall into panic mode.

Pakistan is the West’s most important ally in the war on terror. It borders both Iran and Afghanistan and its frontier tribal areas provide safe haven for the Taliban fighting British forces across the border in Helmand and US troops in eastern Afghanistan.

For the last six years the West has conveniently ignored the fact that Musharraf was a military ruler who was seen as a pariah before 9/11; that it was Pakistan where both al Qaeda and the Taliban were founded; and that its military had run a kind of nuclear arms bazaar for rogue states. Even when it was clear that Musharraf’s popularity had plummeted, rather than allow an alternative to emerge, they instead encouraged him into a deal with Bhutto to give his regime a “democratic face”.

So what now? Musharraf has promised to take off his uniform and hold elections on January 8, presumably hoping that Bhutto will not be ready in time. If she contests, it’s unlikely she will be able to campaign – Musharraf has already said he will not allow any “agitation”.

The million dollar question is will the Pakistani army really relinquish power? They have run the show for 33 of the country’s 60 years of existence and pulled the strings from behind for much of the rest of the time. During Bhutto’s two stints as Prime Minister she often complained “I am in office but not in power”. She later admitted she had had to leave both the nuclear programme and Afghan policy in the hands of the military.

Since Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999 they have dramatically increased their role in both the public and private sector. Retired generals and brigadiers run the tax authority, the postal system and the housing department and are chancellors of a number of universities. Two of Pakistan’s four provinces have generals as governors. According to Military Inc, a fascinating book by defence analyst Ayesha Siddiq, the army also controls large parts of the economy doing everything from running banks, airlines and insurance companies to manufacturing fertilisers, soap and cornflakes. Most three star generals are said to be millionaires.

The war on terror has proved remarkably lucrative for Pakistan’s military. Since 2001, Pakistan has received $11bn in US aid. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, less than 10 percent of this has gone to economic and social projects. The army gets more than $100m a month cash payments from the Coalition Support Fund.

However many in the ranks are not happy at fighting what they see as “someone else’s war”. Not only are they having to fight their own people but have lost more than 800 men – more than any country fighting in Afghanistan. So unpopular is the war at home that brigadiers and above no longer venture out in uniform and officers have been told not to drive their staff cars in the bazaars.

For western policy makers, the biggest nightmare is Islamic revolution in Pakistan, particularly the idea that someone like Mullah Omar could get their hands on the button of the country’s nuclear bomb.

“Pakistan could be far, far worse than Iraq and Afghanistan put together”, says a senior foreign office official.

Christina Lamb’s new book Small Wars Permitting; Dispatches from Foreign Lands is out in January (Harper Press).