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The Band Played On: Continued Military Rule in Pakistan
by friend of MERIP
Thursday May 9th, 2002 10:16 AM
MERIP Press Information Note 95
The Band Played On: Continued Military Rule in Pakistan

by Kamran Asdar Ali
May 9, 2002
(Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology and Middle East studies at the
University of Texas-Austin.)

On May 8, a bomb blast rocked central Karachi, killing at least 14 people,
including a number of French nationals. This suicide bombing comes on the
heels of the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal
reporter, allegedly by Islamist extremist groups who had recently fallen out
of the favor of the Pakistani military government. Similar explosions have
hit churches and other places of worship around the country this spring. In
Karachi, Shia professionals have been assassinated in escalating sectarian
violence that has gripped the larger cities of Pakistan.

Some have argued that elements within the Pakistani security services are
still involved in assisting the perpetrators of these attacks. The guilty
parties would be those elements of the state security apparatus who have
been left out in the cold by Gen. Pervez Musharraf's regime. The military
junta, in contrast, blames these incidents on outside influences seeking to
destabilize Pakistan. Eight months after the September 11 tragedy, the
regime seeks to portray Pakistan as a changed polity.


On April 30, a referendum extended Musharraf's presidency for five years. As
with a similar exercise conducted by the dictator Zia ul Haq in the 1980s,
popular participation in the referendum was dismal -- estimates variously
say that 6 to 30 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls. Accurate
assessments of turnout were impossible due to widespread double voting and
other fraud. Yet the semblance of an electoral process allowed the military
junta to ascribe a democratic legitimacy to the current episode of army rule
in Pakistan.

Although much criticism of Musharraf was levied by sections of the Pakistani
press and the political opposition, international condemnation of the
referendum farce was muted. The US preferred not to take a position at all.
"It's for the Pakistani people to judge what the referendum means in terms
of returning the country to democratic civilian rule," said State Department
spokesman Richard Boucher, adding that US hopes for greater democracy in
Pakistan are pinned to October's planned parliamentary contests. Boucher's
noncommittal stance came as no surprise. As long as Musharraf's regime
allows US and allied troops to use Pakistani territory for the remainder of
the US war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan's internal politics
will remain secondary to the larger geopolitical goals of its most important


The Taliban and al-Qaeda owe their existence, in part, to past machinations
of the Pakistani military in fomenting radical Islam. Today Musharraf and
his fellow generals, acutely sensitive to their international portrayal,
have cynically used their newfound status as darlings of the Western press
to project a distinctly secular image. In a major address to the nation (and
the world) in January 2002, Musharraf promised to curtail the activities of
extremist groups and to reform the madrassas (Islamic schools) that
infamously graduated many of the Taliban. He positioned himself as a
moderate Muslim ruler who had heeded the wishes of the silent majority in
Pakistan that opposes extremism and fanatical Islam. His desire to rid
Pakistan of extremist elements was affirmed when he invoked the secular,
modernist father of the Pakistani nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah, a
British-trained lawyer from a minority Muslim sect, successfully led Indian
Muslims in their struggle to establish an independent Pakistan. His speeches
and writings emphasize a vision of a secular, democratic and modern national
entity populated primarily by Muslims, but providing equal citizenship
rights to all religious groups that lived within its boundaries. Musharraf
seeks to wrap himself in this vision of a modern, moderate and Muslim

For a military man who came to power through a coup and who was essentially
committed to the Pakistani military's involvement in Afghanistan and to its
incursions into Indian-held Kashmir, the January speech was indeed a major
policy change. While the rest of the world praised Musharraf for his brave
decision, Pakistanis themselves knew that they may have been witnessing
another performance in the country's ongoing political theater, directed and
produced by the military's General Headquarters Central. The military now
seeks to distance itself from the very forces it helped to create -- which
are violently resisting the regime's attempts to don new political garb. In
the eyes of the Pakistani population, the Pakistani military leadership is
simply trying to rehabilitate itself, just as it needed to work its way out
of another major crisis of legitimacy in 1971.


After embroiling the country in a brutal civil war, in December of 1971 the
Pakistani army surrendered to Indian forces in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. As
a result of the subsequent division of the country, the disgraced military
finally handed over power to the civilian administration of Zulfikhar Ali
Bhutto after 13 years of governance. Musharraf has drawn an analogy between
that national turmoil and the present crisis in the region. In so doing, he
has underscored the relevance of 1971 for Pakistan's more recent history.
The Pakistani military has again brought the country to a political crisis
due to its failed adventures in neighboring states.

Perhaps the post-September 11 political crisis reminded Musharraf of 1971
because of the scenario in which former president Benazir Bhutto would
follow in her father's footsteps to lead Pakistan again. Musharraf may have
thought this possibility could become a reality if the US and European
states remained jittery about Pakistan's nuclear warheads falling into the
wrong hands, as they remained suspicious of Pakistan's security agencies'
strong ties to radical Islamist groups. If Bhutto played her cards well, she
could become the consensus choice for the West. Moreover, her unqualified
support for the military's post-September 11 policies assured some within
the military that she was not a threat to its political authority, social
influence and budgetary demands. She could, like her father who
re-established and reaffirmed the military's authority, become the civilian
face for behind-the-scenes military influence. Musharraf's embrace of
secularism has enabled him, at least for the time being, to outfox Bhutto in
her attempts to regain power. In the international arena, he is now
considered trustworthy, as evidenced by his invitation to the White House in

But Musharraf's analogy to the 1971 crisis is limited. In 1971 the threat to
the state structure emanated primarily from the left. The long rule of the
military, with its deep links to industrial and feudal interests, had led to
a popular mobilization that demanded democratic reform, economic
redistribution, social justice and rights for ethnic minorities. Now the
threat to the governing junta comes from the more militant Islamist
forces -- themselves the product of a longer legacy of military rule in
Pakistan, ironically enough.


Since Pakistan's independence in 1947, relations between Afghanistan and
Pakistan had been strained due to boundary disputes and the feared spillage
of ethnic Pashtun nationalism across the common border. Afghan rulers
disputed the nineteenth-century division of Pashtun-dominated areas by the
British colonial authorities. The Durand Line, the boundary between colonial
India and Afghanistan, was inherited by Pakistan as its own border with the
neighboring state. Successive Afghan governments were supportive of
nationalist Pashtun movements that called for regional autonomy or
independence from Pakistan. These struggles were a source of anxiety to the
centralizing Pakistani state. With openly hostile India on their eastern
flank, Pakistani military strategists had regarded their not-so-friendly
western neighbor with suspicion. Tensions were aggravated by the
communist-led coup in Afghanistan in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet
invasion of that country in 1979. The US-backed resistance to the pro-Soviet
Afghan regime guaranteed, at least in the minds of the Pakistani military
leaders, a somewhat concrete resolution of their Afghan problem.

How the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the area bordering Afghanistan
and having a majority Pashtun population, went from being a hub of
nationalist and leftist politics to a region now identified with radical
Islamic movements is still an unwritten part of Pakistani history.
Pakistan's support for Pashtun groups may partly be a result of geography,
since Pashtun areas in southern Afghanistan are contiguous with the
Pakistani border and kinship ties cross the boundary. The Pakistani security
agencies, charged with running a covert war against the Soviet presence in
Afghanistan, were successful in turning these ethnic bonds into bonds of
Islamic resistance. In the last two decades, the Pakistani state has used
Islamic symbols and political discourse successfully to diffuse a
progressive, nationalistic and at times separatist movement within its

The present incursion of Pakistani regulars, along with US Special Forces,
into the tribal belt of northwestern Pakistan is an unprecedented twist.
Under the pretext of pursuing fleeing al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, the
Pakistani state is able to assert direct authority over a space that
previously it governed through intermediaries and the consent of the tribal
leadership. Since the long Afghan war in the 1980s, these areas have also
been a conduit for the drug trade and covert arms deals. As much as the
Pakistani military and bureaucratic elite has benefited from the drug and
arms trade, today the Pakistani state -- under immense pressure from the
US -- finds itself in direct confrontation with the semi-autonomous ruling
cliques of the NWFP. Pakistanis may be subjected to more random acts of
violence, like the Karachi car bombing, that may be a direct result of the
military's incursions into the tribal belt.


In addition to its intervention to nurture a Pakistan-friendly regime in
Afghanistan, the Pakistani military has long encouraged armed resistance
against India in Kashmir. These interlinked policies guaranteed the
military's high demands on the national budget, and provided the ideological
justification for the growth and consolidation of the army's role in
Pakistan's social and political life.

Even after its about-face on the Taliban after September 11, the Pakistani
military continued to think it could intervene in Kashmir. However, the
December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament may drastically limit
Pakistan's support for Kashmiri separatists. India, with or without proof of
official Pakistani involvement, pointed to the pattern of support that the
Pakistani military had offered to armed groups which targeted civilians.
Pakistan failed initially to understand the emerging atmosphere of zero
tolerance toward any form of terrorist activity after September 11. In
contrast, the Indian government, taking its cue from the US, pushed hard to
win the international public relations war, if not the hearts and minds of
Kashmiri Muslims.

India has threatened Pakistan with dire consequences for the attack on
Parliament. It is the return of 1971, this time in reverse. The neighbors,
now armed with nuclear arsenals, remain involved in a game of dangerous

Pakistani civilian governments in the last decade have been unable to
influence the policy on Kashmir (or on Afghanistan). That has been the
purview of the military, which has periodically sabotaged any movement
toward a negotiated settlement. Yet civilian governments, along with their
rampant corruption, have neglected issues of democratic governance, economic
distribution and social needs. Within this context, the military has
portrayed itself as the stable social institution that can save Pakistan
from its corrupt and inept civilian representatives. Yet the peculiar
impasse that Pakistan faces over both homegrown Islamist militants and
Kashmir is entirely the military's responsibility.


The Pakistani military understands this charge at a fundamental level.
Musharraf's speech in January was intended to reduce international pressure
on his government, and to polish the tarnished image of the Pakistani
military among Pakistanis themselves. The military remains the largest and
most organized political group in Pakistani society. As much as it nurtures
its constituency through sophisticated use of the national media, it is also
cognizant of the social, economic and political implications of its
long-term policies. To continue to rule, the army knows, it needs to recast
the recent past as an aberration in popular memory, and play the liberal
secular card. The liberal intelligentsia in Pakistan has heaved a sigh of
relief at this turn of events. Long the target of Islamist attacks,
sometimes instigated by the state security apparatus itself, liberals are
now circling their wagons around Musharraf, seeing him as the savior who
will release the country from the Islamists' grip. In their unrestrained
enthusiasm they perhaps forget the military's capability to manipulate
history. Musharraf is willing to hold elections for Parliament in October,
but the referendum has ensured that he will be head of state for another
five years. The military will not risk civilian scrutiny until it can
guarantee the continuation of its own entrenched power in Pakistani society.

The Pakistani liberal media has compared Musharraf's answer to the
post-September 11 crisis to Kemal Ataturk's transformation of Turkey into a
"secular" state in the 1920s. While selectively remembering the secularizing
impulse of Kemalism, these assertions tend to forget that the Turkish
experiment in nation-building has been fraught with draconian laws,
centralized power, oppression of ethnic minorities and extreme brutality
visited upon the population by a police state. As in Turkey, those
Pakistanis affected by such a nation-building process will resist its
imposition. If the social and political framework within the country does
not fundamentally change, the territorial integrity of Pakistan may
dissolve. The geostrategic location of Pakistan, along with its nuclear
capacity, should make the international community think seriously about this
possible outcome of its support for the continued rule of Gen. Musharraf and
his colleagues.

(When quoting from this PIN, please cite MERIP Press Information Note 95,
"The Band Played On: Continued Military Rule in Pakistan," by Kamran Asdar
Ali, May 9, 2002.)


For background on Pakistan's role in Afghanistan, see MERIP Press
Information Note 69: Pakistan's Dilemma:

For background on jihadi groups, see MERIP Press Information Note 76:
Pakistan, "Pro-Taliban Elements" and Sectarian Strife:

Hamza Alavi's article, "Pakistan Between Afghanistan and India," in Middle
East Report 222 (Spring 2002), examines the contradiction between secularism
and democracy in depth.

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