At time of writing, Pakistan’s state of emergency was becoming insoluble, with a complex array of actors and factors hindering any assessment of what could come next, and what can be done to achieve a workable outcome. While Ireland comes to terms with the possibility that Government pressure had prevented the TV appearance of a prominent critic of the Minister for Health, Pakistan’s security forces have arrested 2,500 civilians, suspended the Constitution, blocked independent news channels and banned public gatherings.
Remember, there are huge stakes for the West in this, so any simple suggestion that General Musharraf should just stand down unconditionally and relax military dominance of Pakistan’s politics is naïve and simplistic. It is not just that Pakistan has between 40 and 60 nuclear weapons, or that it has Taliban-aligned groups in control of large swathes of the country’s northwest and west, or that the largest city Karachi is a hotbed of extremism and ethnic tensions. It is all these factors and others.
Pakistan has been a military dictatorship for roughly half of its history as an independent state. Islamism has been a factor in Pakistani politics at least since the military régime led by Zia ul-Haq until 1988. Then, as now, the exigencies of the anti-Soviet conflict in next-door Afghanistan facilitated the growth of ‘political Islam’ as a potent force in Pakistan’s army-led political bazaar.
The Afghan Mujahideen, including foreigners like the young Osama bin Laden, took on and ultimately defeated the occupying Soviets, with substantial assistance from the US and Pakistani militaries. And of course we know that since, some of the anti-Soviet fighters turned on their American partners, culminating in the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the ousting of the Taliban – and bin Laden – from their would-be caliphate.
But the Taliban had been set up and nurtured by Pakistan’s military intelligence, with the tacit approval of then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. After 9-11, the weight of American pressure forced Islamabad to turn on their former allies.
Now, the NATO International Stabilisation Force in Afghanistan is coming under increasing pressure from a Taliban secure in their Pakistani tribal strongholds. IAnd it is US, UK, Canadian and Dutch soldiers that do the fighting and dying, while other contingents remain in the relatively secure, pro-US, northern part of Afghanistan. NATO risks defeat and internal division over Afghanistan, as a reluctant German government and public refuse to let any of the 3000-strong contingent engage the Taliban. Other countries take a similar policy, though with much smaller troop numbers.
But the Taliban are now attacking in northern and western Afghanistan, not just their southern and eastern parts where they have engaged NATO and the Afghan Army for the past 2 years.
In short, there is now a Pakistani Taliban taking on western and western-aligned troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Musharraf was forced to sign an appeasement-style truce with militants earlier this year. Which did not stop the kidnapping of hundreds of Pakistani troops and a sensitive declaration by hardline Islamists that soldiers killed fighting militants should be denied an Islamic funeral.
What is key is whether senior military are up for a re-alignment of domestic political forces, with an army-‘moderate’ alliance in place to offset Islamists and send Pakistan back on a democratic path. But nobody knows how this will play out.
While parts the army are sympathetic to militants, others take the opposite view, and would relish a chance to launch an all-out assault on the Pakistani Taliban strongholds. And still others will watch the protests led by Bhutto closely, for fear his current defensive reactions sully the Army’s prestige and make him a liability. Musharraf’s clampdown on secular political parties and civil society throws Pakistan into an uncertain new stage.
At time of writing, Bhutto was still hedging her bets on whether to retain her US-brokered democratisation alliance-of-convenience with President Pervez Musharraf, or to strike out as figure head of pro-democracy opponents of the General’s military regime. Her gamble – or gambit – of leading a long march from Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, to the seat of government in Islamabad, could be seen as an attempt to force a Burma-style street showdown with the Army, which, if there is an over-reaction by the Army, could push the US into cutting back on its multibillion dollar subvention of the Pakistani military, and therefore ushering in a coup against Musharraf by senior army cadres fearful of the loss of aid and thus regarding the General President as a liability.
But, given the broader regional picture, with some NATO allies failing to put their shoulder to the wheel in Afghanistan, and the fear that Pakistan’s nukes could become loose, there would have to be a bloodbath for the US to undermine Musharraf. AQ Khan led Pakistan’s nuclear bomb development – but is now under benign house arrest for his role in exporting nuclear technology to Libya and North Korea among others. So the nuclear and Islamic terror fears align like nowhere else in Pakistan.
After all, Bhutto’s return to Pakistan was intended to give democratic legitimacy to Musharraf’s Presidency, and weld secular democrats to the military to head off any attempt by Islamists to increase their power. But pro-Taliban parties have formed alliances with Musharraf’s own party, so the prospect of the General forming an accord with Bhutto, whom the Islamists despise, goes against this grain. Musharraf clearly resents her US (and UK)-brokered return, not least as it undermines his dealings with pro-Taliban parties.
But now Musharraf’s high-wire balancing act – between the US, the Taliban, his own army, Pakistani opposition parties, pro-Taliban parties in his own party alliances – maintained since 2001, could be coming unstuck. How this plays out over the coming days and weeks will have a huge bearing on global security.
Journalist Simon Roughneen was in Pakistan with GOAL in 2005, and has reported on politics in Sudan, Burma, East Timor, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Uganda and elsewhere in various Irish and UK newspapers.