Who will be calling the shots in Pakistan?

As the newly-elected representatives of the opposition parties and their unelected leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, position themselves to take over power in Pakistan’s National Assembly. They face the dwindling power of President Pervez Musharraf, weakened by the loss of his supporting party, the Pakistan Muslim League Q, and all his other camp followers, many of whom are seeking to hitch their wagons to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or Sharif’s PML-N. Meanwhile the most powerful man in Pakistan, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, bides his time in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. A major concern of his is the undue attention given to the army by the militant Islamists whom Musharraf had riled and then been unable to control. It was Kayani’s public separation from Musharraf in the days leading up to the February 18 elections that spelt doom for Musharraf and his party. By forbidding the army from contacts with all politicians, including Musharraf, and dissociating it from the running of the elections, Kayani made the army neutral. In other words, it would not participate in intimidation of the electorate nor condone blatant vote rigging. That allowed the opposition parties to win back their rightful quota of power in the elections. Now, Sharif is calling for Musharraf to resign and the Western powers are trying to find ways of keeping him on, with Zardari and the PPP hedging their bets for fear of “rocking the boat”. That was the telling phrase used by PPP Prime Minister-in-waiting, Amin Fahim, yesterday. Attention shifts to the role of the army chief. Kayani’s actions and inaction both will mean a lot in the days ahead, especially in signaling a shift in relative power between the President and the army chief.

It reminds me of the events surrounding Pakistan’s first national Martial Law in 1958 when President Iskander Mirza imposed Martial Law but appointed the army chief General Ayub Khan to run it. Mirza’s plan was to ease out Ayub and replace him with another chief. Within days, it was becoming evident to observers in the media and the diplomatic corps that the duumvirate would not last. Elie Abel of The New York Times recounted how he detected a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room when Ayub entered the room for a joint interview with Mirza conducted by Abel and Watson Sims of the Associated Press on 9 October in Karachi. ‘It was immediately clear who was in charge,’ said Sims. Within days Ayub was to overthrow Mirza and take over as President. (I cover these events in detail in my forthcoming book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within; April 2008, Oxford University Press.)

The same sort of shadow play is being conducted between the Army House where Musharraf lives (instead of the Presidency in Islamabad) and its rightful occupant, the new army chief, Kayani. While technically Musharraf can still replace the army chief, he may have run out of time. The extent of Kayani’s unilateral declaration of independence from his former boss will become evident in the next few weeks as he shifts some of his principal aides at army headquarters. The first to go may be his Director General Military Intelligence, Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmed, reportedly a relative of Musharraf. Next will likely be the Director General, Inter Services Intelligence, Lt. General Nadeem Taj, a former Military Secretary to Musharraf. The DG ISI normally reports to the Prime Minister and the new Prime Minister will want his own person in that slot and most likely will accept Kayani’s choice. Another key position that Kayani will need to fill with a new person who owes his loyalty to him and not to Musharraf is the Corps Commander X Corps in Rawalpindi that controls the key 111 Brigade. This brigade is the one that guards all the key residences of the President, Prime Minister, and other sensitive installations in the capital area and Rawalpindi. It is also the one that undertakes all the operational aspects of a coup d’etat. At GHQ, he will be looking to the Chief of General Staff’s slot also for someone of his own choice, replacing Lt. General Salahuddin Satti, who once commanded X Corps under Musharraf. Satti commanded 111 Brigade when Sharif was overthrown in October 1999. How quickly Kayani makes his new appointments and consolidates his own position in command of the army will indicate the shift of power from Musharraf to the army chief. His window of opportunity is narrow: he can do it now, while Musharraf is still reeling from the shock of the elections and before the new Prime Minister has had a chance to establish his control over government.

A thoughtful man, not given to impetuous behavior, Kayani will be weighing these matters before taking action in the weeks ahead. Watch those posting orders from GHQ!

Democratic Pakistan: an American Conundrum

The euphoria over the successful democratic elections in Pakistan on February 18 has unleashed a torrent of commentary on what next for the US “War on Terror”? The biggest question that seems to be leading to sleepless nights in Foggy Bottom and parts of even academia it seems is whether a democratically elected government might now decide it is not in Pakistan’s interest to prosecute the US’s war in Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf had agreed to allow limited US operations from Pakistani soil but did not level with his own countrymen it seems. The story now breaking from the US is that the Predator drones that often attack targets inside Pakistan fly from a base in Pakistan.

Will a democratic government continue this practice of deception? In other words, was the US better off having an autocrat at the helm in Pakistan?

The latest hand-wringing statement on this conundrum comes from Graham Allison of Harvard, an expert on nuclear issues, who now has become an expert on foreign policy and Pakistan in particular. In his Op Ed, marked by some inaccuracies, in The Boston Globe he states:

A Pakistani government whose actions align with its citizen’s views on these issues would be at loggerheads with the United States.

Such misguided analysis miss the point that the reason why the Pakistani citizenry opposes the US is because the US supported a military regime for the past eight years in Pakistan against the people of Pakistan. Musharraf was seen by increasingly large numbers of Pakistanis as doing the US’ bidding and ignoring the wishes of his own people. Gradually, he lost the support of all major social groups that initially supported him: the intellectuals, the media, the lawyers.

Today Musharraf is isolated. No one in Pakistan speaks for him, except his own ex-military spokesman, who is paid to do so. Not even his King’s Party, the now discredited and defeated Pakistan Muslim League Q that has gone eerily silent. The only voices of support now seem to emerge from his few American well-wishers, like Allison, who are looking to maintain the comfortable old patron-client relationship between the US and Pakistan.

This confuses the ordinary Pakistani: Isn’t America supposed to welcome democracy? If so, why does it distrust it in Pakistan?

While the past history of Pakistan’s politicians is not one to inspire confidence, they have lived through difficult times in the past eight years and if they learned any lessons, it will be critical for them to put “Pakistan first” in everything that they do. Musharraf used that slogan too but never translated it into action. He put himself first. Indeed, it will be in Pakistan’s interest that the war on terror now becomes Pakistan’s own war, since the battles will be fought within Pakistan and not just militarily but also with economic and political weapons. For once, the Pakistan army will need to work in tandem with the political system to address the underlying issues that fostered the spread of Talibanization in Pakistan, as Musharraf’s regime dithered. If they cannot work together, the country faces dire prospects. And time is not on its side.

The challenge now facing the US is to accept this fledgling democracy and allow it to find its feet. And for Pakistan’s new government to be bold in attacking the insurgency with all the weapons at its command, not just military might. The deal making with the militants that failed Musharraf will fail the new government too. It’s a huge responsibility. But the new government should not sacrifice Pakistan’s sovereignty to the US’s short-term interest as the ancien regime did.

Musharraf loses a “referendum”; Pakistan wins big

Early results from the Pakistan elections indicate a routing of the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q Group) that supported President Pervez Musharraf for the past five years and allowed him free reign effectively to convert Pakistan from a parliamantary to a presidential system. It appears that the Pakistani voter saw this election as a referendum on Musharraf. If so, he lost big.

Now what?

There is a possibility of a grand alliance at the center, involving former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N), the Pakistan Peoples Party, and the mainstream Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province, with even the urban Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz of Sindh joining in. This kind of government would provide a useful counterweight to the power that resided in the presidency for the past eight years plus. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must be smiling in heaven: democracy indeed is the best revenge!

If Musharraf learns to co-habit with this new dispensation at the center, then he may be able to salvage his place in history. One hopes he resists the temptation to resort to political engineering which brought a previous president to his fall at the hands of an army chief who felt the impending chaos was not in Pakistan’s interest. Indeed, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, must be credited with having helped prepare the ground for the people to exercise their franchise with confidence that the army would not be party to rigging. He and the army can now move back to the military part of the war on terrorists inside Pakistan.

The new government in Pakistan should now see the insurgency inside Pakistan and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as Pakistan’s own war and not that of the US alone. And it needs to employ military tactics as part of an overall strategy that envelopes economic, social, and political approaches. The US should not have to push Pakistan into doing what is in its own interest on that front. Senator Joseph Biden must be pleased that the US can now have an alliance with the people of Pakistan and not with an autocrat, no matter how personally liberal he might be. And one hopes and prays that the new leadership in parliament will not wish to pander to the religious right, as the PML-Q did. Cutting deals with the Pakistani Taliban falls in that category. It never worked and never will.

An important part of the political puzzle now will be control of the critically huge province of the Punjab. If it is in concert with the government in Islambad then Pakistan have a chance of stability that will allow it to regain its political footing and restore the teetering economy.

Stay tuned!

Memories of a "Free and Fair" Election in Pakistan

Looking forward to next Monday’s elections in Pakistan, my thoughts go back to the 1970 elections, when I helped PTV cover the elections in “real time” and reported them directly to the population without any intermediaries. Neither the Election Commission nor the Inter Services Intelligence at that time had the nous to manage the results. In fact, the ISI had predicted that the populist Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would get a bare minimum of seats, as would the Bengali nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in East Pakistan. They predicted a hung parliament that would allow the military dictator General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan free rein to manipulate the system, to his liking. (Shades of what we are hearing these days!) Little did they know what the people of Pakistan would do. Hungry to exercise their right to vote for the first time in a free manner since the 1956 elections (that were overturned by a military coup in 1958 and followed by direct or indirect military rule for 12 years), Pakistanis overturned all expectations and predictions.

Some 63 per cent of Pakistan cast their votes on December 7, 1970. The eastern wing chose Mujib, the west chose Bhutto. The East Pakistanis by rights could have ruled the country. But the west, the army, and Bhutto, would have none of that. Civil strife erupted. The military was caught in a bind. And to “save” Pakistan, Yahya let loose a reign of military terror in East Pakistan, in the end losing that province to an Indian invasion. Thus was born Bangladesh. Pakistan has never been the same since.

But those elections in 1970 were a huge shot of adrenalin for the electorate and for us in Pakistan Television news. I recall how we set up a system to gather results from each district and reported them to our central office. As they came in, we announced them from a special election studio in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, with a wall-sized chart that listed progressive results for each party by province. We stayed on the air for 29 hours non-stop, sleeping in shifts and then getting on the air again. Shoaib Hashmi, an intellectual from Lahore,  and Ubaidullah Beg, the brilliant mind who was co-host of a popular twenty questions-type of program called Kasauti, anchored the Urdu reportage. I cut in with the English updates. We were on an emotional high, seeing the peoples’ right to select their leaders being exercised in a bold manner. And for the first time, the people of Pakistan believed what we told them from official PTV. They responded warmly.

To help pass the time, I had brought in a book of elephant jokes. We began filling the gaps on air with those jokes. Even translated into Urdu they struck a chord with our audience. We had started getting letters, cards, and parcels with mini-elephants from or viewers while we were still in the midst of our marathon broadcast. They stayed up with us. We were in reporting heaven! I recall coming out of the studio in the middle of the night to see my friend Gareth Gwenlan, standing on the lawn of the TV station waiting for me. Gareth, later famous as the producer of Fawlty Towers and other top BBC shows, had been sent with another colleague to help train us in TV production by the BBC. He said he was watching the reporting of results from his home in distant Islamabad and could not stay away. “I had to be where the excitement was!” he said.

That night’s excitement was repeated with the provincial elections ten days later when we were on the air for another 17 hours non-stop. But it did not last too long after that, as the country slipped into chaos and confusion and street protests led to open rebellion in East Pakistan and then an unnecessary war with India that Pakistan lost. The country wept as our once proud but badly led and misused army surrendered in the Race Course Ground in Dacca on 16 December 1971. Pakistan was never going to be the same again.

Subsequent elections never produced the same vitality and huge turnouts. Even the election after the death of another military dictator General Ziaul Haq in 1988 that brought Benazir Bhutto to power had a turnout of only 40 percent. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won his so-called landslide in 1997, only 35 per cent of Pakistanis went to the polls. The heavily circumscribed election of 2002 under President Pervez Musharraf was said to have brought out 41 per cent but that figure may be open to doubt.

On Monday, February 18, 2008 when Pakistan goes to the polls again, the turnout may well be below 30 per cent, as threats of terrorism scare the population from coming out in large numbers. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto took the excitement out of this election for many Pakistanis. The absence of Nawaz Sharif and his brother from the races also detracts from the validity of the process. Musharraf’s falling popularity among Pakistanis at large will be reflected in the turnout and the results this time around. He may well lose in the long run. He has promised a “free, fair, and safe” elections. But the real losers on Election Day will be the people of Pakistan, deprived of participating in a truly unfettered election.

Private TV channels will do their best to cover the voting. But the threat of controls and sanctions weighs heavily on their operations. PTV will do what is expected of it, toe the official line. Word of mouth, what Franz Fanon called “the native telephone”, will prevail in the end. No amount of government controls or threats can silence that. No matter what the announced party results are on February 19th, in the end the people of Pakistan will win. I hope it is not too long in coming.

Benazir Bhutto’s Voice from Beyond

With the current election campaign coming to an end in Pakistan, the leading light of the opposition to President Pervez Musharraf has joined the discourse from beyond the grave and raised it to a higher level. Benazir Bhutto’s posthumously-released extended essay-cum-memoir Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West was released this week and likely will get a good reception in the West at which it is aimed. It bemoans the intellectual stasis in the Islamic world and calls for self-criticism among Muslims at large as the basis for a better understanding with the West. However, if past trends hold, it will be less read and understood in her native Pakistan and even less so in the Muslim World. Unfortunately, the oral tradition still prevails in Pakistan and in the heart of the Muslim world. And open discussion of profound issues in religion and politics has been displaced by drawing-room banter about conspiracy theories, the latest overseas trips, and acquisitions of the ostentatious trappings of wealth.

I visited Pakistan right after President Musharraf’s autobiography In the Line of Fire was released in 2006 and found over a period of two weeks that the book was being discussed at every lunch and dinner party I attended. But when asked, only four persons in those two weeks had actually read the entire book. The rest relied simply on excerpts or newspaper reports or what they had heard from others about it!

Bhutto’s book, like Musharraf’s, is an important addition to the paltry literature from Third World leaders on the issues facing their countries. Musharraf’s book, self-centered and slight, was in his own voice, probably because he dictated large segments of it after getting input from others. The Bhutto volume has relatively more heft but reeks of many hands.  It truly comes to life with her own words, dealing with the memories of Pakistan and of her arrival in Pakistan after her recent exile. And then there are the surprisingly candid pen portraits of many of the countries and leaders of the Muslim world, who do not come up to her exacting standards of democracy. Other parts remind us of plodding research assistance that yields a potted history of Pakistan and the emergence of the modern Islamic World, with copious quotations from other authors that drown out her own powerful views and voice. What could have become a major call for change in the Muslim World thus is reduced to an undergraduate essay in those parts. Those who follow Pakistan’s history will note the skipping over or rationalization of thorny issues such as the rise of the Taliban during her tenure as Prime Minister or charges of corruption or maladministration, with the practiced ease of a politician.

What makes the book important and interesting is the conflict that Bhutto’s own background and actions created for her as leader of a progressive and populist political party, while remaining at once a western-educated member of the feudal class, assigned to power by birthright. Yet, a strong nationalism and sense of destiny pervaded her thinking and led her to devote all her energies to returning to Pakistan and its benighted politics. I could see that steely determination when we last met in Washington just before she took off for Dubai en route to Pakistan. She lived and breathed Pakistan. And in the end she died for Pakistan. She understood full well that her return was fraught with danger. But she persisted and even after the first attack on her arrival procession on October 27, 2008 in Karachi, she was not fearful and continued with her public campaigning. That was the only way of ensuring that her people, her so-called vote bank, would be galvanized into action. Unlike Musharraf, who has sought safety behind multiple layers of security, she connected with the masses. And she paid the price for it.

Of all the current Pakistani leaders she recognized clearly, as she states in her book, that “extremism thrives under dictatorship and is fueled by poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness”. She was prepared to speak publicly about these issues. Whether she would have been able to change the situation in Pakistan or not, we will never know. The confluence of the forces of extremism and dictatorship, which she heavily criticizes in this book, may well have led to her horrific death.

The question now is whether the Pakistani electorate will listen to her voice from beyond this world and take back its country from the cancerous inroads of predatory politics that have debilitated Pakistan’s quest for democracy. This is at once her legacy and her dream for Pakistan. Who will fulfill it?

Will Musharraf “lose” these elections?

As the days wind down to the national and provincial assemblies elections in Pakistan on February 18, the one man on the political scene who is not in fact running faces the serious prospect that he may end up in the losing column. President Pervez Musharraf, sans his general’s uniform and the rank and power of Chief of Army Staff, appears increasingly to be the single most important issue on which Pakistanis citizens at large and the political parties that are hoping to make a comeback are focused. Having transformed Pakistan from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system in which he controls the levers of political power, he resorted late last year to extra-constitutional measures to have himself re-elected president and then shed his uniform. Later, he got his own compliant supreme court to ratify all his extra-legal measures. But, if current public opinion trends hold up, he may well lose his hold on the country.

The rising unhappiness with Musharraf has allowed the opposition Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to coalesce against him. Meanwhile numerous polls conducted by local and foreign agencies appear to signal a rising wave of disappointment with Musharraf’s regime, with more than two-thirds of Pakistanis calling for his immediate resignation.

Of the issues that have helped focus the negative sentiments against him are inflation, which is rampant and rising, and lack of security. An unseemly public spat between the Finance Minister and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan that acts as the guardian of the monetary policy on measures to control inflation has added to the public’s confusion. On the security front, the government has lost ground continuously since last year, ceding territory not only in the badlands of the North West Frontier Province to the homegrown neo-Taliban but also in the heartland of that province and elsewhere.

Even the Interior Ministry acknowledges that of the 64,175 polling stations are being set up for Monday’s elections almost one-third 19,380 have been declared ‘sensitive’, that is dangerous and demanding the presence of police, paramilitary rangers, and even the army to provide security. Of these, the number of ‘most sensitive polling stations’ stands at 8,928 — 3,787 in Punjab, 1,575 in Sindh, 1,094 in the NWFP, 1,350 in Balochistan and 1,122 in FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that abut Afghanistan).

The Interior Ministry spokesman, according to a report in DAWN newspaper, deemed some areas in the NWFP, Balochistan, FATA, and Sindh as ‘high-risk’. They are Swat, Shangla, Lower Dir, Malakand Agency, Hangu and Tank and Bannu in the NWFP; South Waziristan Agency, North Waziristan Agency, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, FR Kohat, Darra Adam Khel and Bannu in FATA; parts of the riverine belt known as Kacha Area in Sindh; and Kohlu, Dera Bugti and Killa Abdullah in Balochistan. These are probably the areas where the regular army will be deployed, to provide security but not to help conduct the polling, a point that the new army chief has underlined repeatedly.

To add to the public deep concern about safety, there has been a rise in terrorist actions against the Pakistan army at its very heart, in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to Islamabad where the army headquarters re located. There is broad agreement that these attacks have been prompted by Islamist militants angered by Musharraf’s take-over of the Red Mosque in a bitter shoot-out last year in the heart of Islamabad. So, he has now become the lightning rod for attack on the armed forces. Further, elections rallies of the mainstream Awami National Party have been hit with suicide bombings in the NWFP.

Musharraf must have been unhappy to read about the meetings held by his erstwhile political ally Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Q group (known widely as the King’s Party because it supported Musharraf) with the religious leader of the Red Mosque militants, who is in prison. Hussain is reported to have suggested that he would try to get him released but failed to make a deal with the incarcerated Mullah. Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the PML Q, Mushahid Hussain (not related to his party chief), appeared to distance himself from Musharraf’s policies by suggesting that the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan, be freed.

If the pre-rigging that is being widely alleged does not take hold and derail the electoral process on February 18, and instead people cast their ballots freely on the basis of the deteriorating economic situation and inflation on the one hand and the lack of security on the other, Musharraf may end up being the biggest loser when the results are announced. Under that scenario, the opposition parties may garner enough seats to overturn many of his fiats of dubious legal validity of the recent past. This time around, he may not have the coercive power of the army behind him, an army whose new chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been signaling a shift in its internal priorities from political involvement to professionalism. Musharraf may thus find himself isolated and abandoned by his supporters. If the PML Q manages to eke out a win then street protests may erupt across the country, adding to the violence from terrorism

The prospects for change loom large on the Pakistani political scene in the weeks ahead.

Posted on The Huffington Post, 14 February 2008