Life in Pakistan without the general

By Jason Burke

THE political demise of the president of Pakistan will have repercussions well beyond the humid corridors of Islamabad.

Last week, violence flared up throughout Pakistan: suicide bombers struck in the east, hundreds died as the army launched new offensives against radical Muslim militants, 100 or so miles to the west, there were riots across the border in Indian Kashmir and bombs, and the customary rockets and battles in Afghanistan.

“It is clear that we are on the brink of a major change that goes well beyond the end of another cycle of civilian-military rule in Pakistan,” said one Islamabad-based western diplomat.

The changes in Pakistan over the past decade are manifest. This weekend tens of millions followed events on the country’s scores of new local language television channels — predominantly Urdu, the national tongue, but in minority Sindhi, Punjabi and Pashto, too. None existed a decade ago. The vociferous and hugely popular talk shows have politicised swaths of the population.

For those without televisions, the now ubiquitous ‘one rupee a minute’ mobile phones will act as a secondary conduit of information. In the growing cities — a recent study revealed that more than 50 per cent of Pakistanis now live in towns of more than 5,000 people — the effects of the long economic boom of the Musharraf years has broadened the middle classes. The irony is that Musharraf instigated the changes, such as the liberalisation of the media and the economy, that have led to his downfall.

The 65-year-old general took power nine years ago in a bloodless coup, ousting Prime Minister Sharif.

The summer of 1999 had seen a series of corruption scandals breaking around Sharif and his family, a short, vicious and disastrous war with India in Kashmir, and an economy in freefall. One by one Sharif and his cronies corrupted, co-opted, imprisoned, exiled or intimidated almost all who could act as constraints on their power.

But when Sharif attempted to replace Musharraf, the head of Pakistan’s immensely powerful military, he went too far. As the general circled in a passenger jet above Karachi, forbidden to land and running out of fuel, loyal army commanders moved swiftly to secure the country.

“The Pakistani Army always has updated plans for a war in Kashmir, for an Indian invasion, and for taking control of government,” one retired senior officer said recently. “We just dusted off the right file and it was over in hours.”

Sharif was arrested, tried for treason and exiled to Saudi Arabia. He made no secret of his desire for vengeance. Eight years later it looks he has got it.

The coup had broad domestic support and Musharraf found himself back in international favour after the 9/11 attacks when, after some deliberation, he pledged his support in the ‘war on terror’. A flood of diplomatic, military and financial aid followed. And until spring last year, Musharraf seemed unassailable.

The threat to Musharraf came from two directions. The first was from the Islamic militants.

The surge of militant violence was partly a result of the fallout from the war on terror globally although incompetence also played a large part. Demoralised soldiers or policemen were sent repeatedly against enemies they were ill-equipped to fight, in campaigns with little strategic direction or consistency.

Overseas, the president appeared incapable of fighting even Pakistani militants, let alone the Taliban or Al Qaeda, which had based itself in the country he supposedly governed. American officials asked themselves if he really was the right man to be receiving billions of dollars of aid.

Here a second shift in Pakistan in recent years was important: the reassertion of a more confident and aggressive national and religious identity, which translates into a much less deferential attitude to the West.

The other threat to the former president came in the unlikely shape of Pakistan’s lawyers. Their protest was sparked when Musharraf moved to suspend the chief justice last year — a big mistake. Protests spread as for the first time, Pakistan’s middle classes turned against the man they had once supported. A manipulated election, a state of emergency and a continuing crackdown on the media brought reinforcements from journalists and intellectuals. A new ‘civil society’ movement appeared.

The two major parties, the PPP and the PML-N, recognised the need for uniting against the common enemy. But, given the changes in Pakistan, it seems likely that Sharif will be the long-term winner. And in a democracy the government reflects the culture, the attitude and the beliefs of the people. They may not be those the West hoped to see.

— The Guardian, London

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