US Support of Musharref in the Name of Freedom Dashes Hopes of Democracy in Pakistan
In the third week of March 2000, then-American president Bill Clinton arrived in South Asia for a six-day tour. Out of the 144 hours he spent there, he was no more than five hours in Pakistan. He made a brief stopover on March 25, which to some government functionaries was a signal to let the world know that Islamabad was not completely damned and discarded following the military takeover some five months before, in October 1999. Pakistan had had to lobby hard on Capitol Hill for President Clinton's generous gesture.
Clinton agreed to do this favor for Pakistan on one condition: that no joint statement or press briefing with Pakistan's military leader, Pervaiz Musharraf, would take place, for he was seen by the US as a dictator who did not deserve diplomatic approval, but rather a censure for his illegal rule. Instead, Clinton gave a live address to the people of Pakistan on television.
In his address Bill Clinton lamented the return of military rule after October 1999's coup. "Absence of democracy makes it harder, not easier, for people to move ahead," he said. "Democracy cannot develop if it is constantly uprooted before it has a chance to firmly take hold."
His advice to both the men in uniform and those who were stripped of their democratic rights by these men in khakis was simple" "The answer to the flaw of democracy is not to end democracy, but to improve it." The majority of Pakistan's people felt relieved that a global leader was on their side in their aspirations for democracy--an aspiration that was being denied by the military leadership for one reason or another.
It is an irony of geopolitics that the lesson that a US president wanted the people of Pakistan to remember is being forgotten by his successor to the Oval office. The US--the sole super power--has now granted the status of friend and ally to the very same military dictator of Pakistan whom the American leadership previously deemed an outcast to the point of not honoring him with a joint public appearance in his very country.
The world has certainly changed since September 11, but not every change is for the good. More precisely, the world has not changed in favor of the people of Pakistan. They are now being ruled by a military dictator who has been transformed from pariah to darling dictator.
Before September 11, Pervaiz Musharraf was more shunned than sought after by world leaders. Today, the opposite is true. The General himself, when he was army chief, was seen as an instigator of dangerous Pakistani provocations in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1999, a period best remembered as the "Kargil crisis." Later that year, he seized power in a bloodless coup and named himself president in 2001, kicking out the civilian Prime Minister by accusing him of selling the national interest to US and India by agreeing to withdraw from the Kargil area in Indian Kashmir--an agreement Musharraf characterized as compromising national security.
In his long-sought first official visit to the White House in mid February of this year, the glowing self-styled Pakistani president won copious praise from White House.
US president George W. Bush, who could not even recall Pakistan's military ruler's name during an interview before last November's presidential election, praised the General with these words, ''President Musharraf is a leader with great courage, and his nation is a key partner in the global coalition against terror.''
He continued, ''I want to remind people from Pakistan that I didn't mention many world leaders in my State of the Union [address]. But I mentioned President Musharraf for a reason. I'm proud to call him 'friend'.''
During his US visit, General Musharraf was hailed by the US Congress as the leader of a "new Pakistan," and was described by US Secretary of State Colin Powell as a "courageous leader".
Both US leaders were referring to a Pakistan that was subject to US sanctions both because of its testing in 1998 (along with India) of nuclear devices, and because of its unelected military regime.
Thus we can confidently imply that the post-September 11 global order has turned Pakistan from an international pariah state to front-line state. For Pakistan, the days of international isolation are gone. The bulk of American sanctions have been lifted, clearing the way for further economic cooperation.
But all this good happened to us with the one causality--the democracy in Pakistan. Yes, the people in Pakistan are happy that international aid is coming, and that they would no more be treated as belonging to a state that sponsors terrorism. However one question still haunts people of Pakistan: Whether their struggle and aspiration for civilian democratic rule has any support on Washington's political agenda.
Here the question is: Will the international community compel the military junta to let civilian forces run the country on their own? Will the democratic forces be getting any sympathetic voice in their support, as they did before September 11?
Miserably, the answer to all these questions, if one is not over-optimistic, is not in the affirmative. Not for any moment in the immediate past have the political parties in Pakistan felt so disheartened than they do today following the overt approval of a military dictator by the very champion of the free world and democratic values, the USA.
"What does it take a military dictator to get respect in Washington these days?" one political commentator wrote. "The same thing it has always taken--a willingness to play along with the White House game."
In Pakistan it is feared that Pakistan's military ruler would use this international accreditation to prolong his rule. The same thing happened when the previous military ruler, General Ziaul Haq, who--under somewhat similar conditions--turned US friendship into lasting dictatorial rule over Pakistan, where his leadership continues to be remembered with fear and disgust. Then, as now, Afghanistan was the reason for America's engagement with a military dictator in Pakistan.
"How is it that the United States got Jihadi Zia when that is what it needed and has a liberal Musharraf when that is what it needed now?" one columnist commented during the week-long tour of General Musharraf to the US.
"He [Musharraf] denounces the Islamization of Pakistan," Pakistan's two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, now living in exile, wrote in the February 5 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, with heading of "A chameleon ally in Pakistan." "while for years the exploitation of Islam has been the military's way of stifling the Pakistani people."
The fact that in Pakistan holding public meetings and taking part in public demonstrations and processions are offenses under military decree is overshadowed by the General's rhetoric of "containing militancy". March 23 is a national day in Pakistan; on that date nearly one thousand political activist were arrested from Lahore city alone when the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy--ARD--tried to take out a procession to commemorate the day.
"If the US could get Pakistan to join the international coalition against terrorism," an Indian Union minister wrote recently in an Indian newspaper, "why couldn't it get Islamabad to adopt democracy?"
Under heavy international pressure, President Musharraf has announced a 'road map' for the return to democracy, according to which he will permit general elections this fall.
Musharraf is not shy in hiding his intention to continue his office as president. He wanted to stay in power for five years after the election, Musharraf said, to ensure the continuation of his reforms. There is credible news that he is planning a referendum this spring to get himself elected president for the next five years. No doubt he will win the referendum, as in the past no military dictator has lost any such initiative.
"Musharraf plans to continue his military dictatorship through a manufactured political party in elections next October [that are] almost certain to be fraudulent, shutting out from the contest the legitimate political parties and leaders of Pakistan," says one political leader. Two of Pakistan's ex-prime ministers are living in exile, and plenty of political workers are disqualified from contesting elections--if they are ever held.
Recently Musharraf made a bizarre statement claiming that God has ordained him to be president.
"Of course, as Believers, we know that not a leaf stirs without divine intervention," is how The Friday Times commented on the General's statement in its editorial of February 15. "But much more than that is implied by [his] statement. It suggests a delusion of power that is totally unacceptable in a society struggling to find rational, democratic moorings."
Political parties fear that the postponement of elections or engineering the polls would play into the long-term goals of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalism. To them, failure to return to democracy means that extremist allies remaining within Pakistan's security services cannot be effectively rooted out.
"Civilian control of all aspects of national policy, including security matters, is the only way to ensure that Pakistan does not become a haven for extremists again," one political analyst remarked.
"Let us remember the lessons of Iran," writes Benazir Bhutto. "The Shah of Iran was the West's surrogate regional policeman for decades. His policies of choking and victimizing democratic forces led to the fundamentalist revolution from which the world has yet to recover."
She continues, "For the moment, some might find Musharraf's dictatorship useful. But the United States must proceed with great caution and wisdom. In the words of John F. Kennedy, 'Foreign policy requires the long view.' Ultimately, the West's blind eye to democracy and human rights can have unintended, unforeseen, and deadly consequences, not just in Pakistan, but for regional and world peace."
No two opinions are the same about the time-tested notion that what appears to be convenient in the short-term is likely to be catastrophic in the long term. Who knows this better than the US, which is being blamed for its past patronage of today's rascals and past "freedom fighters"--the Muslim fundamentalist?
"America must invest its political and financial capital in institutions, not individuals," writes Shaheen Sehbai, ex-editor of Pakistan's influential daily newspaper The News after being forced to resign by President Musharraf's cohorts in power. The General was furious because of Sehbai's blunt criticism of his policies.
"The American people and their elected representatives must not look the other way again," concludes Sehbai.
But it is becoming more certain with every passing moment that the international community--read as 'USA'--is going to repeat the mistakes of the past--the mistake of supporting and nurturing Suhartos, Pinochets, Marcos and Zias.
The perpetrators of "Operation Enduring Freedom" are collaborating with Pakistan's generals to snatch the very freedom from the people of Pakistan that they claim to be fighting for.
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This story was published on April 4, 2002.