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Proletarian issue 21 (December 2007)
Pakistan: military dictatorship on the way out
Lacking all legitimacy, and increasingly hated by the Pakistani masses, the Pervez Musharraf’s comprador military dictatorship is on its last legs.
The military government in Pakistan, headed by General Pervez Musharraf, had absolutely no legitimacy. It came to power through a coup against a legitimately and democratically-elected government led by Nawaz Sharif. Mr Sharif was given life imprisonment on corruption charges, but eventually was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia on the twin conditions that he stay out of both politics and Pakistan for a ten-year period.

The other former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, also facing corruption charges, fled the country, spending the past seven years in London and the Gulf Emirates.

Although initially greeted with relief by the Pakistani people as a welcome respite from the corruption-ridden governments of Sharif and Bhutto, the Musharraf military dictatorship soon lost its lustre. Its approval ratings, which have been in freefall for quite some time, came down to around 20 percent.

The reasons for this are not hard to discern. First, the corruption of the former civilian regimes was replaced by the corruption of the army – which was worse, as the army put itself above the law and even a modicum of accountability. Second, contrary to popular notions abroad, the Pakistani masses are not enamoured of gun-toting soldiers ruling over their lives and riding roughshod over them. Third, following the 11 September attacks on New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon, General Musharraf’s government allied itself, to the point of subservience, to US imperialism’s ‘war on terror’.

The masses of Pakistan, like the masses everywhere, especially in the vast continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America, entertain a burning hatred of US imperialism’s predatory wars against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Lebanon. In the case of Pakistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, and whose people have close cultural, religious and ethnic ties with the people of Afghanistan, it is but natural that the Pakistani masses should entertain tremendous sympathy for the victims of US imperialist brigandage across the border, if not provide active assistance to the resistance against the US-led occupation of Afghanistan.

By accepting the outsourcing of imperialism’s ‘war on terror’, along the Pakistan-Afghan border, and hence turning the border areas into a war zone, the Pakistani military regime has in fact accepted the role of waging war on its own people in return for US support for the regime and military assistance to the tune of $10bn over the past seven years – a shameful role which has brought the Musharraf regime much opprobrium from the Pakistani masses.

Storming of Lal Masjid

In the confrontation between the Musharraf dictatorship and the Pakistani people, matters came to boiling point this year over the storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) by the Pakistani army on 10 July and the sacking of Iftikhar Chaudhry, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in March.

During the storming of the Lal Masjid, several hundred followers of the two radical priests, the Ghazi brothers, were done to death in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’ and ‘restoring the rule of law’. As a matter of fact, the action was taken partly to appease US imperialism and partly to entrench the position of the Pakistani military government of General Musharraf, by attempting to project the impression that this government alone stood in the way of the takeover of Pakistan by the forces of Islamic fundamentalism.

The Lal Masjid action immediately drew support from US President Bush, who sent a congratulatory message to General Musharraf, which enraged public opinion still further.

The truth is that fundamentalism has grown to unprecedented proportions in Pakistan on General Musharraf’s watch, for his government, like all previous military governments in Pakistan, has used fundamentalism to build support for itself and to keep at bay the relatively secular bourgeois parties such as Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of Mr Nawaz Sharif.

The Lal Masjid and the Ghazi brothers received every encouragement and support from the Pakistani military establishment. Situated within five minutes’ distance from the headquarters of the ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Lal Masjid was the favourite place of worship for the ISI officers.

How was it possible, asks the average Pakistani, for the Ghazi brothers to turn this mosque, so close to and under the watchful eyes of the ISI, into a veritable arsenal? Clearly the authorities deliberately allowed, perhaps even encouraged, the Ghazi brothers to fortify the mosque, with a view to attacking it later in the name of fighting against terrorism and fundamentalism, and thus claiming to be the guardians of secularism, law and order, the interests of the moderate Islam of the majority of Pakistanis, while at the same time earning kudos from the Bush administration for being a reliable partner in the latter’s ‘war on terror’.

The action of General Pervez Musharraf’s government in regard to the Lal Masjid is eerily reminiscent of Operation Blue Star undertaken by the Indian government of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi to blast out of the Golden Temple in Amritsar the monster Bhindranwale and his thugs, who had also been allowed to fortify the Golden Temple right under the eyes of the Indian police and intelligence services, and who were then attacked with brutal military force – all for the purpose of reviving the flagging fortunes of the Congress Party by portraying Indira Gandhi, and her Congress, as saviours of the unity of India and the guardians of secular values.

Both in India and in Pakistan, the fundamentalists in occupation of the Golden Temple and the Lal Masjid respectively were there in such strength because the authorities had given the green light to them to be so. In both cases, they could have been persuaded to vacate these places of worship through negotiations or forced out through a relatively short siege accompanied by termination of essential supplies such as food, water and electricity. In both cases, the authorities, pursuing ulterior and selfish actions, were determined to bring an end to the stand-off through violent means – with disastrous consequences.

Just as Indira Gandhi’s Machiavellian action plunged the Indian Punjab into a violent conflict which lasted over 10 years, the equally dastardly action of the Musharraf government is threatening to plunge Pakistan into a state of violent conflict without end. Since the Lal Masjid action, suicide attacks on Pakistani military establishments and personnel have become a routine affair.

Along with this, in the North-West Frontier Province, where the Pakistani government, under orders from Washington, has been bombing centres of population on the pretext of ‘fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban’, there exists a state of near civil war.

What is more, the Pakistani soldiers sent to fight in those areas see no sense, no justice, in attacking their own people just to please US imperialism. Not surprisingly, therefore, they desert in their hundreds to the opposition. As a result, the morale of the Pakistani army has hit a new low – so much so that the soldiers do not wear their uniforms when venturing out of their barracks.

Chief Justice sacked

As to the Pakistani judiciary, on 9 March this year, General Musharraf sacked the chief justice of the Pakistani supreme court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, for his refreshing display of independence of the executive on an array of issues ranging from the privatisation of a steel mill to that of the disappearance of those alleged to be involved in terrorism.

The sacking of the chief justice provoked outrage, bringing tens of thousands of lawyers onto the streets of Pakistan’s cities and townships in protest against the government’s arbitrary action. Overnight, Chief Justice Chaudhry became a cause célebre and the protesting lawyers were soon joined by opposition parties. A few months later, on 20 July, Chief Justice Chaudhry was reinstated by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, dealing a humiliating blow to the military regime of General Musharraf, whose standing plummeted, and leaving it totally isolated.

US imperialism brokers a deal

The precarious position of the Pakistani military regime compelled US imperialism to step in and broker a deal between General Musharraf and the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. In July, General Musharraf met Ms Bhutto in Abu Dhabi, where the two worked out the details of the deal.

Under this deal, all corruption charges against Ms Bhutto were to be dropped and she was to be allowed to keep her properties in Dubai, London and the US, as well as her bank accounts abroad. Further, she was to become prime minister under General Musharraf, who was to be allowed another five-year term through election by his placemen in the existing legislature and provincial assemblies, the products of a rigged election in 2002. After being installed in violation of the existing constitution of Pakistan, he had agreed to step out of his uniform as Chief of the Army Staff.

It was under this unholy agreement between a corrupt politician and an equally corrupt military dictator, carefully choreographed by that self-appointed champion of democracy the world over, namely, US imperialism, that Ms Bhutto returned to her home town of Karachi on 18 October to a tumultuous welcome by her supporters. However, by entering into this devil’s pact, Ms Bhutto had enraged sections of the opponents of the regime to the extent that they were willing and able to attack her procession with two deadly suicide attacks that claimed the lives of 140 people.

The other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose government was overthrown by General Musharraf in 1999, was shown no such consideration, instead being bundled back to Jeddah within hours of landing in Pakistan this September.

State of emergency

“Man proposes, God disposes” runs an old saying. Within three weeks of Ms Bhutto’s return to Pakistan, all the carefully-laid plans for providing a civilian façade to a military dictatorship were overtaken by a sudden turn in events and lay in ruins. Fearing that the Pakistani supreme court, much emboldened following the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry, would rule that his re-election as president in October was illegal, General Musharraf launched a preventive strike.

On 3 November, Musharraf declared a state of emergency (a de facto martial law), dismissed most of the supreme court judges suspected of being independent and hostile to him, locked up hundreds of intellectuals and journalists, arrested upwards of 5,000 lawyers and supporters of the opposition, imposed draconian restrictions on all the media, except those run by the government, which were left to sing the praises of the military government and propagate its achievements, real or imaginary (mostly the latter), and appointed an ‘interim government’ under Mohammed Mian Soomro

Benazir pulls out

Benazir Bhutto, who was part of this US-inspired conspiracy against the people of Pakistan, was severely compromised and left with egg on her face by the sudden turn of events. She was obliged to protest and declare that she would lead a ‘long march’ to Islamabad on 13 November to protest against the state of emergency.

On 12 November, the authorities put Ms Bhutto under house arrest. She had little option but to state the following day (13 November) that she had pulled out of discussions with General Musharraf over a power-sharing government, adding that she would refuse to lead the government as long as he remained president.

“I have decided there can be no further negotiations. Back channel negotiations between Pakistan People’s Party and Musharraf ended after [the imposition of a state of] emergency. There is no chance of those being revived”, she declared, adding that democracy was the only way to stability in Pakistan and that Musharraf was “the obstacle in the way of attaining that stability”.

Ms Bhutto’s statement, in glaring contrast to the view held by US imperialism that only a Musharraf-Bhutto team could wage a successful fight against the jihadis, hammered a final nail into the coffin of hopes of a US-brokered power-sharing agreement between the army chief and the leader of the PPP, considered to be the largest political party in Pakistan, in order to provide the military government with a civilian mask and confer wider legitimacy to General Musharraf’s highly unpopular military regime.

Facing public disapproval of her deal with Musharraf, and acknowledging as much, Ms Bhutto said: “There is a total trust deficit. I will not serve as prime minister as long as Musharraf is president. There is no question now of getting this back on track because anyone who is associated with Musharraf gets contaminated.”

Musharraf on the back foot

This fear of contamination, even on the part of Ms Bhutto, leaves Musharraf with no one to turn to except the only two reliable pillars of his regime – the Pakistani army and US imperialism.

On 16 November, Ms Bhutto went so far as to call upon the US administration to cut military aid to Pakistan until democracy was restored. The reaction of Ms Bhutto made the situation very difficult for US imperialism, which had in all probability been complicit in the declaration of the state of emergency in Pakistan, for only hours before its declaration General Musharraf had a meeting with Admiral Fallon, head of the US army’s Central Command, which is responsible for the conduct of the US’s predatory war against Iraq.

On the weekend of 17-18 November, John Negroponte, the US deputy secretary of state, visited Pakistan in an attempt to effect a reconciliation between General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto. At the same time, in the face of widespread hostility in Pakistan to the declaration of martial law, and the near-total isolation of the Musharraf regime, US imperialism started making noises about the need for ending the state of emergency and restoring democracy, and for General Musharraf to step out of his army uniform.

Following Negroponte’s visit, Musharraf flew to Saudi Arabia on 20 November amid speculation over a meeting with Nawaz Sharif, who had been living in forced exile for seven years, ever since his overthrow in 1999, and whose attempted return to Pakistan had been thwarted by the military government.

Be that as it may, on 25 November, Sharif returned to Lahore from Medina in a flight laid on by the Saudi authorities, just in time for the opposition parties to register candidates by 26 November for the election to be held on 8 January 2008, while a spokesman for General Musharraf said that he would step down as army chief and be sworn in as Pakistan’s civilian president on 29 November.

Musharraf elects himself President

Meanwhile, General Musharraf, who had sacked the Supreme Court before it could sack him, replaced the sacked judges with pliant appointees ready to do his bidding. Not surprisingly, the newly-reconstituted Supreme Court, stuffed full of the military government’s placemen, has since then thrown out all the six petitions before it challenging the legality of General Musharraf’s re-election as president in October. With this hurdle out of the way, just as these lines are being written, General Musharraf has stepped own (on 28 November) as the army chief and got himself sworn in (on 29 November) as President for the next five years.

While welcoming General Musharraf’s retirement from the army, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government was ousted in a military coup in 1999 by General Musharraf, called on the retiring army chief to lift the state of emergency and reinstate the judges removed from their posts.

Although he has rigged his way into the presidency, his position lacks all legitimacy and popular support. To use the words of Jo Johnson, “beyond a clique of rent-seekers hanging around the barracks, there is no popular constituency for an extension of Mr Musharraf’s presidency. The process by which the former commando chief had procured a new mandate has been a travesty of even the most dimly understood democratic principles”. (‘Musharraf must leave office, not just the army’, Financial Times, 29 November 2007)

The guardian of democracy, US imperialism, has totally disregarded the fact that General Musharraf has “stolen victory in an election he was not eligible to fight and then sacked the Supreme Court judges who were poised to disallow his candidacy”. (Ibid)

While nudging him somewhat to lift the state of emergency and step out of his uniform, the US has not insisted on the reinstatement of the sacked judges, thus enabling Musharraf to cling to power, which makes a mockery even of bourgeois norms concerning the rule of law.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these fraudulent tricks, Musharraf’s position is weaker today than ever before. It is unlikely that he will serve his full term. Pakistan is braced for a period of destabilisation, in which the two former prime ministers (Bhutto and Sharif), recently allowed back into the country, plan their new moves and live in uneasy cohabitation with Musharraf.

For now, while Ms Bhutto has promised to restore the judiciary should her PPP emerge victorious from the 8 January elections, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML(N), has pledged to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, sacked twice from his position as Chief Justice in the past eight months.

Should Ms Bhutto honour her promise, that would well and truly bury the US-brokered power-sharing agreement between her and Musharraf. Besides, a judiciary freed from executive interference may well want to quash Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance, a decree waiving corruption charges against politicians, of which Ms Bhutto is the principal beneficiary. However, once in power, and given the pressure from the popular masses, she may be inclined to take the risk.

Deadly grip of the army

Used to ruling the roost, it is only a question of time before Musharraf loses patience. The Pakistani armed forces, which have become transformed into an omnivorous, unfettered force stifling all innovation and business, and whose incompetent, corrupt and unqualified officers head the top Pakistan state-run enterprises, are less than enthusiastic about a democratically-elected civilian government.

The Pakistani army has ruled the country directly for more than half of Pakistan’s 60-year existence as an independent state, while indirectly dominating the country for almost its entire existence, with the result that the chief of the army staff, not the prime minister, is usually the most powerful person in Pakistan.

Military spending consumes 18 percent of the Pakistani government’s budget. But this expenditure, large though it is, does not give even a small glimpse of the army’s economic stranglehold over the country. A venal officer corps sits atop a corporate empire of several thousand companies and enterprises, reliably estimated to be worth at least $20bn, and enjoying near-monopoly over such vital sectors as the cement industry and construction of roads, while controlling a third of the country’s heavy industry – all of which provide ample opportunities for the officer class to enrich themselves.

While the officer corps, in alliance with feudal landlords and comprador capitalists, corner the riches of the country, 70 percent of Pakistanis live on less than $2 a day. Little is spent on health and education, as 45 percent of the government budget goes towards debt servicing and military spending.

Thus it can be seen that the military has been the chief economic beneficiary of army rule. Furthermore, through its recurrent overthrow of civilian governments, it has effectively prevented the emergence of a democratic culture and institutions, in the process strengthening those forces in society most inclined to support army rule.

Almost without exception, and lacking a broad base of mass support, Pakistani military governments have relied on religious and extremely reactionary parties, which are the first to deny women the most basic of rights and are ever ready to crush the national movements in provinces such and Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province.

Musharraf was only continuing this shameful tradition of Pakistani military dictatorships in relying on such parties and suppressing all democratic movements and political parties.

The idea that a Musharraf government, fully backed by the army, is alone capable of fighting religious fundamentalism is patently absurd in view of the fact that not only has fundamentalism gained strength during the tenure of this government, but also that it has locked out of the political process the main democratic and relatively secular parties, while backing and relying on the religious right such as MPL(Q).

While claiming to fight against extremism, the military has been busy crushing the Balochi people’s movement for their constitutional rights.

In any free, fair and democratic election, moderate secular parties can be sure to gain 70 percent of the vote, with the nationalist parties in the provinces gaining 20 percent, leaving the extreme religious parties to gain no more than 10 percent. Even in the 2002 rigged election, the Islamists won only 11.3 percent of the vote.

Thus, far from being a barrier against the advance of extremist fundamentalism, the Pakistani military elite and Pakistani military governments are permanent incitements to fundamentalism. To get rid of all army interference in the political and governmental affairs of Pakistan is a condition precedent to ridding that country of the jihadis who, though representing but a tiny proportion of Pakistan’s population, have lorded it over Pakistan thanks to the army’s backing, while in turn acting as a support base for the military.

Both Ms Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have declared that they will not serve as prime ministers under Pervez Musharraf’s presidency. If they stick to their pledge, and it is a big if, then the scene could be set for a gigantic confrontation between Musharraf and the army on the one hand, and the PPP and PML(N) on the other. In this confrontation, the latter two will only emerge victorious if they take to the street and mobilise tens of millions of Pakistani masses, who are fed up to their back teeth with the oppression and humiliation piled on them daily by the military dictatorship.

Such a victory in the prevailing conditions in Pakistan would be a great step forward for the masses of the Pakistani workers and peasants. Admittedly, the election of a PPP or PML(N) government would bring very little relief to the hard-pressed masses of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the defeat of the military would clear the ground for the organisation of the masses by their true representatives and furnish the conditions for a freer development of class struggle and resistance to the ruling classes at home, as well as resistance to those ruling classes’ imperialist masters in Washington, who have long dominated Pakistan’s life through the Pakistani armed forces.

Victory to the Pakistani masses!

> Anti-Musharraf riots in Pakistan - June 2007
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