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Both cause and effect

Both cause and effect

Author: M.J. Akbar
Publication: Arab News
Date: May 20, 2002
URL: http://www.arabnews.com/Article.asp?ID=15378

An escalation of the undeclared war for Kashmir was inevitable after the recent referendum in Pakistan that "confirmed" Gen. Pervez Musharraf's civilian job. This is not because the referendum strengthened Musharraf. But because it weakened him.

The unstructured but recognized pattern of behavior in a Pakistani coup goes something like this. Tension begins to build between the civilian authority and the military establishment for one reason or the other. A game of nerves begins. Both sides test how far they can go. It does not necessarily end up in a victory for the brass. When Gen. Jehangir Keramat and Nawaz Sharif lost confidence in each other, it was the General who blinked. But at some point the army, which is always fed up of civilian governments, decides that it is strong enough to take on the civilians. Or it feels that it has no other choice but to cross the Constitutional Avenue in Islamabad.

Musharraf was convinced, as were his senior officers, that he would be killed - if not in the air then on the ground - by Sharif if he did not take over. After the pistol-packing boss has taken charge, there is what might be called a phase in which he is trainee president. During this period the General is generally too embarrassed to call himself president; he could be known as chief martial law administrator (the preferred nomenclature). Musharraf simply called himself chief executive.

Then comes the second stage, when the title is maneuvered into the general's designation. The third stage comes with the "moment of legitimacy". This is the point when the General feels that he needs some evidence that he has the support of the people of Pakistan. It is not external factors alone that make him crave for such legitimacy; a government cannot hang loose in the air, without any relationship to those it rules.

Gen. (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan did not have to worry about American pressure for democracy. But he too had to tinker with ideas like basic democracy and set up some kind of national election to confirm him in his job. But at least Ayub Khan had an opponent; and he must have got a bit of a shock when he discovered that his opponent was the steely sister of the steely father of the nation, Fatimah Jinnah. However Fatimah Jinnah was soon to appreciate that the most basic fact about basic democracy is that the winner chose the electorate.

Gen. Zia-ul Haq, who knew what he wanted to do with power, had no time for niceties and dispensed with unimportant matters like an opponent. He became the cause as well as the effect. A referendum changed from being a vote about a person or a post to being a vote for a policy, or alleged policy. As a fraud, it was far more convenient.

The army mind has no understanding of democracy, which is as it should be. The last democratic army, and maybe the first too, existed in the early years of the French Revolution and we all know how quickly it needed Napoleon. An army command is an oligarchy, where decisions by a few are taken for a perceived common good. It is unsurprising that officers do not understand the culture of democracy.

The most stupid civilian politician would have understood the need to stuff a few votes against himself even if he had to rig an election. But it must have become clear to Musharraf and his friends from the reaction that they had shot themselves pretty severely in the foot with this meaningless referendum. Their previous illegitimacy was more legitimate, if only because it was more honest. The referendum exposed in the starkest terms that the army clique that has seized power in Pakistan does not represent the people.

If a government does not represent the people, then what does it represent? Why is it in office? Musharraf justified his coup by saying that the people of Pakistan had got fed up of Sharif. That might even have been true, although there are other ways of solving that dilemma. But what happens when the same people get fed up of Musharraf?

Every government needs a rationale to survive. The condition becomes acute in an illegitimate government born of a coup and "ratified" by a fiction. An external threat becomes an acute need for a general; but this too much be backed by a domestic agenda. Gen. Zia thought he had found his answer when he made the Islamization of Pakistan his domestic rationale, he got the ultimate foreign policy as gift with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Musharraf brimmed over with good intentions during his long honeymoon. He may even have seriously wanted to end corruption and curb the extremists who, as he candidly admitted in his famous Jan. 12 speech, had become Pakistan's biggest headache.

Good intentions are not good enough. All that the General finally delivered was cosmetics. It may not have been his fault. You cannot do much about corruption when the army itself has institutionalized a massive system of state- lubricated comfort for itself. You cannot curb extremism when its use is part of state policy in Kashmir.

The sag between the Musharraf of mid-January, confident at home and applauded across the Western world, and the man who donned strange turbans in his quest for some imaginary vote was palpable. During the last two months Western journalists (and all of them are now in Pakistan) had begun to sniff the duplicity in government and write about it. Pakistanis could not contain their frustration and even anger at the prospect of sustained military rule stretching into the foreseeable future, without any hope of democracy as long as the "referended" Musharraf was around. It was clear that the army needed a quick fix shift of attention from itself to another story.

On Monday, May 13 the International Herald Tribune carried a column by Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post. I quote: "No one plays this aid game better than Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, whose uneven help in the way on terrorism has been purchased at excessive monetary and moral cost to the United States. Washington's unconditional generosity now seems to encourage the Pakistanis to toy with the United States even on the subject of terrorism... How do you say chutzpah in Urdu?" Hoagland then shifts to the scene in South Asia: "After a three-month lull, terrorist groups that infiltrate saboteurs and killed into Kashmir have in recent weeks resumed their normal rate of attacks across the informal 'line of control' in the disputed territory."

But the most striking part of the column was a quotation from Lt.-Gen. Ehsanul Haq, the Pakistani intelligence chief, from a speech he made to his commanders in the first week of May: "There exists an all-time high risk of Pak- India conflict in the coming weeks."

On what basis did Gen. Haq make what by any standards is a dramatic assessment? This was certainly not the view from this side of the border. The mood in New Delhi was induced by the lull after the Parliament-assault storm. The threat of war, that had seemed so real in December and January, had in fact receded, and there were even murmurs about de-escalation.

Did the intelligence chief of Pakistan know something that Delhi was not yet aware of? To speculate, did he know for instance that there would be attacks on Indian Army camps in Kashmir that would send the temperature on the border to flare-up levels? The phrase that Gen. Haq used was "an all-time high risk". Higher than Kargil?

During Kargil the United States of Bill Clinton was disengaged from the complexities of South Asia; it wanted peace as a principle, while the rest of life went on. It required the threat of a nuclear war in the region for Clinton to summon Sharif and tell an ashen Pakistani prime minister that his own armed forces were preparing for the unimaginable, without the knowledge of the country's political leadership. In a sense the coup that removed Sharif had begun long before it happened.

South Asia is a radically different region after last September. No one could have predicted that American troops would be holding joint exercises with India on Indian soil even while their comrades were stationed in and off Pakistan at the same time.

War is easier than peace. That is the one fact about India-Pakistan relations over the last 50 years. Armies are war machines; they flourish in times of confrontation, they wither during peace, even if they are indispensable at all times. The Pakistan Army has taken this premise a few notches ahead; it wants to become a permanent part of the power structure. On what basis can it sell this thesis to its own people? Only by the thesis of a permanent war with India.

A democratic government in Pakistan does not have to be friendly with India, but it will have a greater vested interest in peace, if for no other reason than to keep the army at bay.

The Americans have taken, once again, a shortsighted view of Islamabad. If Musharraf claims to serve their cause, then he must be protected and even patronized. But an army cannot run a country. At best it can defend its nation; at worst it can ruin it. There is no middle ground. If there is ever going to be a solution to the problems of the region it will only happen when democracy returns to Pakistan. A fudge is not a solution.

The question at the beginning must remain the question at the end. If the government in Pakistan does not represent the people then what precisely does it represent? Think about it.

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