Pakistan: Our Man in Islamabad

Our Man in Islamabad

by Stephen Lendman

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was established in
August,1947 when its majority Muslim population
separated from British-controlled India and became a
sovereign state. Since then, the country has been
plagued by wars, political instability, and a series
of military coups as it continues stumbling
unsuccessfully toward democracy.

Nominally, Pakistan is a federal democratic republic
(declared in 1956) under a semi-presidential system
and bicameral legislature consisting of a 100 member
Senate and larger lower house National Assembly. The
President is considered head of state and armed forces
commander and chief (in a civilian capacity) and is
elected by the Electoral College of Pakistan comprised
of both houses of Parliament and the Provincial
Assemblies. The Prime Minister is Pakistan’s head of
government, is elected by the National Assembly, and
is usually the largest party’s leader.

This is how government is supposed to work in
Pakistan, but things are never that simple there. In
its entire 60 year history, democracy has been a sham
under various elected and military regimes. Musharraf
is just the latest military one after he ousted
elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an October,
1999 coup. At the time, few people were surprised as
tensions between elements of Pakistan’s ruling classes
had been building for months. Sharif had grown
increasingly unpopular and had Musharraf not deposed
him other opposition forces might have done it.

Elected as a champion of democracy, Sharif soon
disappointed as did his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto,
who’s now trying to reinvent herself as a democrat.
Massive corruption accompanied his repressive
right-wing rule that made his tenure widely unpopular.
He sacked thousands of workers, cut food subsidies,
let utility costs skyrocket, banned state union
sectors and restricted workers’ rights to demonstrate
and strike. At the same time, he and his cronies
siphoned off millions of state funds, amassed enormous
wealth, and hid it in offshore accounts. Under his
rule, state institutions were collapsing, and workers
and the poor suffered most. They wanted change, and
the army obliged but not the way most people wanted.

Since taking power in 1999 and appointing himself
President in June, 2001, Musharraf engaged in a
precarious balancing act and ruled repressively. He
tried to secure Pakistan’s traditional geopolitical
and strategic South and Central Asian interests. In
addition, he supported the domestic Islamic
fundamentalist right against traditional political
elites and popular opposition from below. He also
aimed to please Washington post-9/11 under threat of
being declared a hostile power if he didn’t and was
summarily told by Deputy Secretary of State Armitage
his punishment would be “to be bombed back to the
stone age.” To avoid that, he stopped supporting the
Taliban and provided the Bush administration vital
logistical help in its attack and occupation of
Afghanistan.

His reward was not being bombed and over $10 billion
in military and other aid ever since through a virtual
unaccountable blank check and blind eye to human
rights abuses under his regime. Since he came to
power, Musharraf tried to silence all political
dissent and did it through disappearances, arbitrary
detentions, extrajudicial killings and torture on the
pretext of fighting “terrorism.” And as a “war on
terror” ally, he launched military assaults against
tribal and Taliban forces in Waziristan and
Baluchistan, but that caused internal resentment to
build against his increasingly unpopular rule. He also
angered elements in the military that resent his lust
for power and reckless behavior to hold on to it, and
that ultimately may be his undoing.

Things came to a boil when Musharraf suspended the
nation’s Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry,
last March. He accused him of “misconduct and misuse
of authority” as cover to remove a key official he
thought might block his plan for another five year
term as President along with remaining chief of army
staff (COAS) that’s constitutionally illegal. He named
an interim head justice, effectively placed Chaudhry
under house arrest, and ordered the judicial council
to investigate corruption charges.

The response to the move was outrage across the board
from opposition parties, lawyers’ organizations and
human rights groups. They called the action
unconstitutional and rallied in street protests
against it. At the same time, Musharraf faces other
crises that led to his recent actions. The Bush
administration wants more from him against the Taliban
as well as assurances he’ll be a reliable ally if the
US attacks Iran. In addition, Baluchistan’s insurgency
has continued for the past two years, and the army has
lost hundreds of troops confronting it. That’s caused
mounting defections in its ranks, and public anger
over it as well.

There are also economic issues because Musharraf
adopted Washington Consensus policies that allowed
poverty and discontent to grow hugely under his rule.
People needs are ignored, social inequity has
increased, food prices have spiraled, unions are
cracked down on, and over half of government spending
is for the military and debt service. In addition,
corruption is rampant, the military practices crony
capitalism, and Musharraf gets millions from it
according to Pakistani analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa, in her
recently published book - Military, Inc.: Inside
Pakistan’s Military Economy.” On top of that,
democracy in the country is a joke and always has
been.

Nonetheless, Musharraf wants to retain power until
2012 and staged a bogus October 6 election to do it.
It violated the law and was stage-managed by the
military in a process neither free nor fair because
the general’s allies dominate the Parliament from
having rigged elections five years ago. As expected,
Musharraf won easily getting all but five
parliamentary votes (252 out of 257) cast and swept
the Provincial Assembly balloting as well. Opposition
MPs abstained or boycotted the proceeding calling it
unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court said no winner
could be declared until it rules if Musharraf could
run in his joint COAS capacity.

Pakistan has seen increased political upheaval for
months. Musharraf wants to keep power by confronting
it and intends to stay allied with the Bush
administration in the process. At the time though, he
said he’d step down as army chief once the Supreme
Court certified his election, but the fact remains he
has no intention to do it.

Pakistan Post-November 3

That’s how things stood before November 3 when the
general staged his second coup by declaring a state of
emergency and suspending constitutional rule. But
that’s nothing new in Pakistan’s history. The
country’s first Constitution was adopted in 1956 but
was short-lived. It was abrogated in 1958 when martial
law was imposed. A new Constitution emerged in 1962
and then annulled in 1969, again under martial law. A
third and current Constitution came in 1973. It was
suspended in 1977, restored in 1985 with major
changes, suspended again in 1999, and restored in 2002
with more changes until Musharraf acted on November 3.


Few in the country with long memories were surprised,
and one analyst said it’s “back to the past again (in
Pakistan.” Another put it this way: “Pakistan’s
constitutional development illustrate(s)....that a
constitutional morality (in the country) has not
developed. The document is unable to discipline the
political elite, especially the bureaucratic and
military elite.” Put another way, these comments
illustrate that the country is not yet ready for prime
time.

Washburn University law professor Ali Kahn explained
on CounterPunch that article 232 of Pakistan’s 1973
constitution “allows the President (as a civilian) to
issue a Proclamation of Emergency under grave
circumstances.” Kahn also said the Constitution
doesn’t allow a “wholesale termination of services of
Supreme Court judges,” thus rendering Musharraf’s
action an “extra-constitutional coup.” But it’s not
the first time he did it. After seizing power in 1999,
he ordered all judges to swear a new oath of
allegiance to him as military ruler. Thirteen of them
on the Supreme Court refused, were sacked, and then
replaced by more complaint ones in a blatantly
unconstitutional act Musharraf got away with at the
time.

Now he’s at it again with a brutal crackdown. After
his November 3 action, Musharraf deployed his security
forces across the capital; occupied Parliament and the
Supreme Court; forced private TV stations off the air;
suspended free speech and the press as well as free
assembly, association and movement; disrupted mobile
phone networks; and placed targeted opposition
politicians, lawyers and others under “preventive
detention” after empowering police to do it.

He further annulled the Supreme Court’s authority to
rule against him, the Prime Minister, or anyone acting
on his behalf and made it a crime to ridicule the
President, armed forces, Parliament or the courts.
Last July, the full Supreme Court bench reinstated
Chief Justice Choudhry to his post, but on November 3
he was removed again along with six other Supreme
Court justices because they refused to endorse
Musharraf’s Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO)
emergency decree. They were also placed under house
arrest. The president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar
Association (SCBA), Aitzaz Ahsan, and other
influential lawyers were also arrested as the general
hardens his dictatorial rule.

Why This Measure and Why Now

Musharraf apparently feared an imminent Choudhry
Supreme Court ruling against his October 6 reelection
and acted preemptively to stop him. Reports in the
country were that he likely knew how the Court would
rule and decided weeks ago to quash it in his COAS
capacity. Benazir Bhutto apparently knew it, too, and
left the country to avoid looking complicit so as not
to tarnish her pretense to be democratic. She returned
to Islamabad November 6, the country is under martial
law with the Constitution suspended, and Musharraf, as
army chief, is a de facto dictator.

This event is front page news everywhere with
Washington and western leaders feigning outrage.
Condoleezza Rice calls Musharraf’s move “highly
regrettable” while affirming the Bush administration’s
support for his regime nonetheless. She claims it’s
because he acted up to now to put Pakistan on a “path
to democratic rule” that on its face is laughable.

Washington values Musharraf in its “war on terror”
because he backs the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is
apparently on board against Tehran, and he lets the
Pentagon use Pakistan territory for cross-border
incursions against its Iranian neighbor in preparation
for something bigger ahead. To prove it means it, the
administration signaled on November 4 it will keep
aiding the man George Bush calls one of his most
important “counterrorism” allies, and America values
“stability” over democracy.

After the coup, Tariq Ali wrote on CounterPunch and
ZNet that Pakistan’s largest independent TV station,
Geo TV, continues broadcasting outside the country,
and one of its “sharpest journalists,” Hamid Mir,
reported his sources told him “the US Embassy had
green lighted the coup because they regarded
(Chaudhry) as a nuisance and ‘Taliban sympathiser.’ “
He was at odds with Musharraf for months over key
issues, according to Ali, such as “disappeared
prisoners, harassment of women and rushed
privatizations.” The greater fear, however, was that
“he might (also be about to) declare a uniformed
President illegal” which is likely true and an easy
sell to forces opposed to an unpopular leader.

This has been building for months and was the reason
behind Washington’s wanting a power-sharing
arrangement between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto.
Those plans unravelled on November 3 even though
Bhutto’s criticism of the coup was muted, and reports
are she’s back to negotiating a deal while, at the
same time, rallying her supporters for an opposition
November 9 Rawalpindi rally.

Accomodating Musharraf is her only option to return to
power (as Prime Minister) and to assure corruption
charges against her are dropped. That part of the deal
was sealed October 5 when Musharraf signed a
“reconciliation ordinance” absolving her of all
outstanding charges of looting up to $2 billion in
public funds during her tenure. In her final year in
office in 1996, Transparency International, an
independent watchdog group, named Pakistan the second
most corrupt country in the world even though its
standing later improved modestly.

Fast-Moving Events in Pakistan

Pakistan remains in turmoil under martial law.
Thousands have been arrested including hundreds of
lawyers, opposition politicians, journalists and
students according to independent sources although the
Interior Ministry acknowledges only 1800. In addition,
pitched battles are on the streets, and all George
Bush can say is we’ll “continue to work with
(Musharraf and hope) he will restore democracy as
quickly as possible.” Military and other aid will
continue, so it’s business as usual, but that’s to be
expected from two nations with contempt for the law.

Consider this New York Times November 7 quote from
prominent Islamabad lawyer Babar Sattar and relate it
to US conditions post-911: “How do you function as a
lawyer when the law is what the general says it is?”
Consider also what lawyer and former cabinet member
Athar Minallah said about Pakistan’s Supreme Court:
“When the (Court) started acting (independently) for
the first time in 60 years, they (Musharraf) came down
very hard. In the past, the Supreme Court had always
connived with the establishment and the military.”

That’s the state of things under George Bush. He
unconstitutionally usurped “Unitary Executive” power
to claim the law is what he says it is and once told
Republican colleagues the Constitution is “just a
goddamned piece of paper.” In addition, federal
courts, including the Supreme Court, are stacked with
supportive right wing justices, and the nation is
about to get a new Attorney General who condones
torture and approves of arbitrary executive power.

Where this will lead in the US next year and beyond is
open to debate. In Pakistan it’s anyone’s guess as
well as things remain fluid and events are breaking
fast. January, 2008 Parliamentary elections are
scheduled but are likely to be delayed or suspended
even though on November 8 Musharraf is now saying,
through his state media, the original timetable will
be moved back to mid-February. Maybe not according to
some observers who believe the political process is on
hold until he secures his position as President for
the next five years and most importantly continues as
army chief because that’s where the real power in the
country lies. Pakistan’s Constitution allows the
legislature’s tenure to be extended up to a year so
it’s possible that’s the plan.

In the meantime, the Pentagon, Bush administration,
Democrats and corporate media back Musharraf even if
some in his own military may not. Washington badly
needs him with Afghanistan deteriorating badly and
Iraq already a hopeless cause. It’s even more
important given the reluctance of NATO and “coalition”
defense ministers to commit more troops and a growing
anxiety of some to pull out of Bush’s wars entirely.
With this backdrop, Musharraf portrays himself as a
rock of stability so who in Washington cares how he
solidifies power or if he’ll accept Bhutto as Prime
Minister. For Bush and Democrats, only the “war on
terror” matters so any leader backing it is an ally.
Bottom line despite muted criticism - democratic
credentials are not an issue. Fact is they never are.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at
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Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and
listen to The Steve Lendman News and Information Hour
on TheMicroEffect.com Mondays at noon US central time.


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