Musharraf under siege

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST

As a combination of overlapping pressures threatens to immobilise General Pervez Musharraf, the long-term prospects in Pakistan appear grim.


THE military regime in Pakistan is now into its ninth month. Invoking the "Doctrine of Necessity" which has been used in Pakistan time and again to justify all deviations from constitutional governance, the Supreme Court has granted the regime three year s in which to implement its agenda and return the country to civilian rule. Nawaz Sharif, the deposed Prime Minister, has been despatched to prison for life. Benazir Bhutto, the alternative candidate for premiership, has been declared a "fugitive from la w" by the courts and is cooling her heels in London while her husband languishes in a Pakistan prison - both facing multiple cases of corruption. The rest of the civilian Opposition, barring the religious parties, never gathered any momentum. On all such counts, Musharraf would appear to be safe. The real turbulence that he faces is of a different kind.

Musharraf could not have started with more political capital on his side. His version of the events that led to the coup and counter-coup of October 12 was believed widely, and he was therefore seen as the victim of a conspiracy and a reluctant coup-make r. Sharif was widely disliked for his corruption, his attacks on a variety of civilian institutions, his Islamicist demagoguery, his impulsiveness. So his departure produced much relief and jubilation. Musharraf did not put the country under martial law, did not suspend fundamental rights and civil liberties, did not abolish the Constitution, did not appoint himself President or Prime Minister. Instead, he spoke of strengthening the institutions of civil democracy, the devolution of power to the distric t and local levels, streamlining the electoral rolls to safeguard against fraud, modernising the taxation system, replacing the punitive Islam of his predecessors with a liberal and progressive Islam, controlling the proliferation of weapons in Pakistani society, and waging effective campaigns against smugglers, tax-dodgers, and illicit wealth of all sorts.

Large sections of the public responded with enthusiasm. There was also the personal reputation of a secular, civilised man. Many observers of Pakistani politics knew that Sharif had tried to buy the loyalties of the corps commanders with sacks of money, which had infuriated Musharraf, and that Sharif had then tried to dismiss him for his lack of acquiescence. Just as he was perceived as not being a part of the corruption machines of the civilian Prime Ministers, Sharif and Benazir, he was similarly perc eived as having no particular coterie surrounding him in the military high command. He was of course the Chief of the Army Staff and thus the principal guardian of Pakistan's military objectives, but unlike Lt. General Ziauddin whom Sharif had tried to a ppoint in his place, Musharraf was not a man of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Nor did he have any shadowy involvement with the jehadi groups; indeed, his conflict with the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami came so early that some nai ve journalists began spreading the story that he was connected with the Lashkar-e-Toyeba.

His good intentions were greeted with widespread goodwill. Yet the signs of trouble came early. Pakistan now has relatively a much more developed civil society than was the case in the past, and tolerance for prolonged military rule has correspondingly d eclined even further. That Musharraf did not suspend civil liberties or freedoms of expression meant that this scepticism could be expressed much more openly and consistently than before, without the presspersons and other opinion-makers feeling the kind of dread which was a fact of daily life under the previous military regimes, notably the Zia regime. Even among the sympathisers, therefore, a virtual consensus soon began emerging that in putting away Sharif and his gang Musharraf had already done the needful and he should now devise a way to restore civilian rule quickly and get out.

Musharraf's announcements of good intentions - the de-weaponisation of society; re-building institutions of democratic governance from the bottom up; a wide net of "accountability" against the corrupt, and so on - led to contradictory effects. On the one hand he produced high expectations which could not possibly be satisfied in the short run and therefore risked widespread disaffection. At the same time, his insistence that he would not give a schedule for return to civilian rule until the requisite st ructural changes were in place indicated that he was settling down to a long tenure as head of state, for which there was no real consent.

The odd assortment of individuals whom he chose early as members of his National Security Council (NSC) and the Federal Cabinet seemed to suggest that far from having a vision of radical and coherent change, he was conventional, clumsy and confused. The only merit was that he chose civilians rather than the military brass. For the rest, it was an incongruous and singularly undistinguished group. Sharifuddin Pirzada, who emerged as the main adviser to the Chief Executive (which is what Musharraf curiousl y called himself), had served every martial law regime of the past. Aziz A. Munshi, Musharraf's Law Minister, had served both Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and Nawaz Sharif as Attorney-General and was the author of the notorious Eighth Amendment to the Constitution wh ich had justified the military's role in national politics. Dr. Attiya Inayatullah, the only woman on the NSC, had been a Federal Minister under Zia and an active member of Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML).

In all such appointments there was a strong sense of continuity with the past histories of martial law regimes and civilian corruptions; Musharraf too was proving himself to be an Establishment man. Another sort of continuity was indicated in the choice of Shaukat Aziz as Finance Minister. Imported directly from the world of private banking in New York, Aziz is only the latest of a string of individuals who have been sent by the International Monetary Fund/World Bank combine to look after the country's finances. The strongest link to the immediately preceding setup is of course there in the person of Rafiq Tarar, the arch-conservative President of Pakistan whom Nawaz Sharif had put in that office as a token of his respect for men of the Sharia. Musharr af seems to have retained Tarar because (a) he really does not have the strength to remove so big a symbol of Islamic conservatism at the helm of the Pakistani state and (b) there is no provision in the Pakistan Constitution for the office of a "Chief Ex ecutive", which Musharraf has devised and assumed, but the continuation of the same person in the office of the presidency gives an illusion of constitutional continuity.

The choice of the younger men who were to represent "new blood" in the Cabinet was at best whimsical and indicated a partiality towards personal networks. Thus the main merit of Omar Asghar Khan, who was assigned a number of minor Ministries, is that he is the son of Air Marshal (retd.) Asghar Khan. For the rest, he has been running a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Sungi, since 1987; he fought two elections, in 1988 and 1990, and lost both times. Smuggled into the world of political power through the back door, he undoubtedly hopes to be to Musharraf what Bhutto was to Ayub Khan and Nawaz Sharif was to Zia. The other such face is that of Abbas Sarfraz, descended from two powerful political families, who is said to have purchased his seat in the n ow-defunct Senate with bags of money; he is not known to have delivered a speech on the floor of the House or to hold a press conference on a political issue during the three years that he spent as a Senator.

Such a team could hardly be expected to bring about the swift and radical changes that Pakistan so desperately needs or to implement the plans Musharraf had announced. Yet Pakistan is ridden with so many crises, of such an urgent nature, that no regime c an survive for long without addressing those crises - especially a regime that has no political machinery at its command, no backing from Pakistan's traditional patrons in the United States, not even a notably united Army behind it. His own responses hav e been fitful and contradictory, and what he has so far undertaken has had the effect of galvanising many forces of opposition against him without building any powerful constituencies which may be mobilised against those forces of opposition. What is the nature of those crises, his responses, the forces of opposition, and the likely outcome?

THERE is, first, the economic crisis of gigantic proportions. Pakistan has an outstanding foreign debt of $42 billion and a domestic debt of $70 billion - with a GDP of roughly $65 billion. The servicing of foreign and national debt takes up 60 per cent of the GDP and defence accounts for another 30 per cent or so; this was balanced against foreign exchange reserves of $1.6 billion at the time Musharraf took over. In a country of 130 million people, the tax base is restricted to 1.2 million people. With 483,094 listed bank defaulters, there is almost one defaulter for every two taxpayers; the bad debts, amounting to 211 billion rupees, are equal to roughly 70 per cent of the nation's revenue base. Investment is down by 37 per cent since last year and i ndustrial growth is down to 1.6 per cent. With exports stagnating at about $8 billion, Pakistan needs $5 billion just to service foreign debt.

Caught in this "debt&defence" trap, the state provides very little of its people's needs by way of goods and services. The gap is filled on the one hand by thousands of NGOs littered throughout the country, and on the other by the informal economy which by World Bank estimates accounts for 70 per cent of the whole of Pakistan's economy. This is reflected then in abysmally low levels of investment in health, education and other areas of social development, and corresponding rates of growth in crime, cont raband, trade, ethnic and sectarian violence which too the state is quite unable to control. Indeed, individuals and groups employed in the state agencies are a major force in facilitating smuggling, tax evasion, violence and crime. In the province of Si nd, for example, there is hardly an official in the prison system who is himself not charged with some crime, the crimes ranging from extortion to rape or murder. The immensely lucrative smuggling networks in contraband arms, drugs and a vast variety of consumer goods are inconceivable without the active involvement of law enforcement personnel at every point.

The shortage of cash has led to at least one remarkable consequence. In sharp contrast with India which increased its military budget this year by a record 28 per cent, Pakistan's recent budget offers zero increase to its defence forces; indeed, Pakistan 's total current defence budget of $2.8 billion is less than the $3 billion that India's increase amounts to. That this remarkable restriction on the defence budget should come at this point tells us not only about the extent of the cash shortage in Paki stan but also about the nature of the current regime in Pakistan. And this also tells us something about Musharraf's sense of priorities as well as his sense of confidence that he can persuade his military establishment to accept such a restriction in th e face of India's dramatic increase in defence spending.

Strapped for cash, Pakistan is seeking a loan of $2.2 billion from the IMF. One of the IMF's conditions is that the tax base must be broadened from 1.2 million to 2.5 million and that the ratio of tax in national income must be enhanced from 10 to 12 - p referably 15 - per cent. It is estimated that the imposition of general sales tax (GST), some moderate revision of the agricultural income tax, and effective anti-smuggling measures, if implemented, can yield 200 billion rupees - or the equivalent of the outstanding annual payments on foreign debt.

Just a couple of adverse decisions at the IMF and among the donors can cause a debt dafault and therefore the collapse of credit ratings for Pakistan, so that the regime is more vulnerable to pressure from the U.S. as well as the 'world government'of the IMF, the World Bank and the international financial institutions (IFIs) than any previous regime, precisely at the time when the U.S. is unhappy with Musharraf personally, for having removed Sharif, and with Pakistan generally, for its relative defiance of the U.S. on a number of current issues, notably Afghanistan. At home, meanwhile, any serious attempt to carry out a National Tax Survey, impose GST, revise the agricultural income tax and/or control smuggling would bring the regime into conflict with powerful forces which it is ill-equipped to take on.

Caught in this whirlwind, the regime threatens to carry out a hasty National Tax Survey with little prior preparation. Half a million shopkeepers, acting notably through the All Pakistan Organisation of Small Traders and Cottage Industry (APOSTCI), are u p in arms on the issue of GST, for, even though the tax itself is paid by the purchaser, the collection of GST would force the traders to keep records of sales and thus reveal their incomes for tax purposes. The traders' shutdown is combined with other s trikes being threatened by transporters, oil tanker operators and so on. At the same time, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), with broad powers to investigate bank defaults, tax evasions and a variety of illicit practices, is widening its net in s uch a way that broad sections of the affluent are feeling threatened and turning against the regime. Meanwhile, the involvement of the civil bureaucracy in these nefarious practices is of such a scale that Musharraf is increasingly turning to the Armed F orces personnel to oversee these processes. This may at length prove to be a great corrupting force for those personnel themselves, but the immediate result is that broad sections of the mercantile, bureaucratic and professional elite, cutting across ide ological and political affiliations, are finding new bases for cooperation against the regime.

These objective bases for cooperation are producing strange bedfellows. Aitzaz Ahsan, a noted Barrister who served as Interior Minister in Benazir Bhutto's government, has filed a writ petition against the NAB in the High Court, levelling charges of arbi trary and illegal conduct, violation of privacy laws and so on - on behalf, interestingly, of Nawaz Sharif. Immediately after the coup, Benazir had congratulated Musharraf for getting rid of the "corrupt" Nawaz Sharif and advised him to restore civilian rule - in short, offering herself as the alternative. She was to find out soon enough that corruption charges against herself were to be pursued in the courts, as per schedule. She began to turn against the regime. Recent reports suggest that there have been exploratory contacts between Benazir and Sharif's wife, Kulsum, over the question of cooperation in a "democratic agitation" against military rule. On the other hand, the traders' lobby is the crucial element in the social make-up of Sharif's politi cal machine, and a convergence of Benazir's PPP, Sharif's PML, sundry other champions of civil supremacy, in an agitation that is funded by the traders and explodes into a revolt of the rich cannot be ruled out. By the same token, it is entirely possible that the regime, supervising a dysfunctional state with a far from united Army and without any clear sense of purpose, may retreat from the confrontation. How the Opposition shall respond to a regime that is seen to be weakening internally and friendles s abroad is yet to be seen.

Musharraf's other pet project was the "de-weaponisation" of Pakistan: the registration of licensed weapons, the confiscation or regularisation of the currently unlicensed ones, prohibition on public display of such weapons, and strict control of the weap ons market. Not much seems to have happened, although the Interior Minister keeps claiming that the plan is being fine-tuned and shall be implemented one of these days. Now, for all the publicity surrounding the jehadi groups, weapons in Pakistani society are by no means concentrated in these groups alone. Virtually all political parties, and even a great many of the students' groups and ethnic and/or sectarian organisations, not to speak of the biggest landowners, have their own armed militias. Insecurity in large parts of Pakistan, reaching deep into the countryside and the remote corners of the highways, is such that millions of people want weapons for their own and their families' protection. A single drive to register licensed weapons, in J une 1998, produced 500,000 such weapons.

This weaponised society began taking shape in the early years of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and has kept growing ever since. The rich barricade themselves in houses watched by armed guards. Gun-runners, indigenous manufacturers of small arms, s mugglers and shadowy retailers of all sorts, besides narcotics networks, participate in the illegal traffic of weapons, as do sections of military and intelligence personnel. Vested interests in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, th emselves deeply involved in the world of illicit weapons, resist every attempt to regularise this world on the plea that free access to weapons is part of the culture of the Pathans and the Baloch. Pakistan, in other words, a swirling sea of weapons in w hich the licensed ones alone would run into millions and the latest kinds of recoilless rifles and machine guns would evoke no surprise. Whether or not de-weaponisation is possible remains to be seen.

The armed Islamicist militias are part of this larger landscape. The Army itself has been the largest single patron of these militias. Initially they were controlled by the ISI alone, which favoured the Jamaat-e-Islami. By the 1980s, and especially after the ascent to power of Benazir, who wanted to superimpose her own establishment over the ISI, the two factions of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) were united and assigned increasingly dominant role. Their Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan and camps in Afg hanistan are said to have produced between 60,000 and 100,000 militants. The Americans, on their part, were particularly keen to neutralise the Irani influence and favoured the diehard Sunni fanaticism of the Wahabi-Deobandi crowd. Thus it is that the Ta liban, the product of those madrassas, rode to power with Pakistan-U.S. sponsorship, which also laid the basis for escalating sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.

That coincided with Pakistan's policy, also formulated in the 1980s, to fan the flames of insurgency in Kashmir in the long-term perspective of a low-intensity warfare. Few of the intruding militants in Kashmir were at that time allied explicitly with th e Taliban or with groups controlled by them. Many of them are still not strictly of that vintage, but some of the more militant groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Toyeba and the Harikat-al-Mujahideen, are directly connected with the Taliban; few are entirely immune to that network. There now appears to be some degree of reversal in the respective roles. That groups aligned with the Taliban are central to Pakistan's calculation actually means that they have gained a much freer hand within Pakistan, not always controllable by the state and its agencies even in such matters as methodical sectarian attacks on Shias, let alone their clandestine networks within Pakistan or activities in Kashmir.

IF what I have called 'the weaponised society of Pakistan' is one side of the environment in which the Islamicist militias have taken root, widespread Islamisation of the urban middle classes, especially in its mercantile and salaried fractions, is the o ther side. A large number of poor people, in all corners of the country, whom the state provides no facilities for health, education or recreation, are glad to give their children to the madrassas for education and social mobility. Pakistan now has a wid espread culture of commodified, semi-literate, vengeful and hysterical religiosity which is the exact equivalent of the Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its social base in India.

Musharraf is not their man and they expressed their wariness quite soon after his takeover. He, on his part, has not been willing to confront them -- perhaps because he is not sure of the level of support he can count on within his own armed forces. The result is that he gives an impression of weakness and vacillation. He said that he admired Ataturk, the founder of the secular state in Turkey. When challenged by the Islamicists, he claimed that he admired Ataturk only as a "soldier". He promised to cha nge the notorious Blasphemy Law in a way that would make it much more difficult to hurl such an accusation, but backtracked after 19 Islamic parties joined hands and threatened an agitation. He held a Convention on Human Rights and Human Dignity at which he condemned violence against the minorities and the 'honour killing' of women, but then allowed his Minister to dilute the proceedings. After sectarian killings in Attock, his Interior Minister hinted at banning "four religious groups that have militan t wings", but the groups were neither identified nor banned. There was some talk of revising the rabid syllabi that are taught in the madrassas but even the talk had died down.

Meanwhile, the historic antagonists in the camp of the Islamicist political parties - Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI and Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani of Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) - have drawn together in M illi Yakjehti Council (MYC, or, in rough translation, the Council of National Unity); talks are afoot to include more such groupings in a broad Islamic front to oppose the regime's lax ways. They have detected weaknesses and are pressing on with their de mands: the inclusion of Islamic articles in the Provisional Constitutional Order, a free hand for religious institutions and jehadi organisations, the rejection of joint electorates for all religious communities, and so on. The Sunni militias have stepped up attacks on the Christian minority and the Shia sect within Islam, with a view to test the regime's nerves. The jehadi groups that are based in Pakistan and Afghanistan but also operate in Kashmir have publicly warned the Hurriyat leade rs that they would be endangering their own lives if they are seen negotiating with Indian authorities. That the Pakistan government itself has advised the Hurriyat leaders not to let go of the chance for even a bilateral dialogue seems not to matter to the jehadis.

The long-term prospects in Pakistan appear grim, and Musharraf may get quite immobilised by a combination of overlapping pressures. His policies on taxation and smuggling can fuel an uprising of the rich, while his equidistance from Sharif and Benazir al ike may bring those two antagonists of yesteryear into an alliance, funded by the trading and racketeering groups. This may coincide with the united action of the Islamicist groups which would want to retaliate against any curbs imposed upon them, withou t which neither de-weaponisation at home nor a credible peace initiative for Kashmir in the international arena can take off. As the U.S. is seen to be pressing Pakistan on issues of Islamic militancy, a cynical anti-American religious populism can coinc ide with hysterical forms of anti-India patriotism. The liberal media may step up its demands for the 'restoration' of 'civilian rule'. Together, these distinct and even conflicting social forces may provisionally come together in what can be billed as " pro-democracy" agitations.

If such a conjunction of forces comes about, the regime will either collapse or try to save itself by imposing a real martial law. None of it may actually come about but there is a writing on the wall that needs deciphering.

ASIDE from the zero growth in the defence budget, two other indications may be significant in assessing the intentions - or at least the current temper - of the Musharraf regime. One is that the rate of infiltration from Pakistan into the valley has been remarkably low this summer, even though the apprehensions after Kargil were rather different. The introduction of suicide bombers and newer levels of weaponry undoubtedly indicate an intensification of another kind, but that may be owed more to the deci sion of the Taliban and the groups they sponsor than to the Musharraf regime. For at least some of the jehadi groups infiltrating from Pakistan, the chain of supply and command has become quite complex, often going directly to Kandahar and bypassi ng Islamabad. It is also quite possible that particular elements in the Pakistan Army would direct and supply those groups in tacit defiance of the regime per se.

The second indication of great interest is that Pakistan seems to have opened a dialogue with a number of neighbouring Islamic states, urging them to take back those of their citizens who are residing in Pakistan and working in the jehadi groups. Islamicist militants from a variety of countries, often dissidents in their countries of origin, had come to Pakistan during the Afghan war legally and with the full cooperation of the Pakistani state and U.S. operatives. Some 3,000 of them are said to h ave been deported by the Benazir government. Many of them returned when Sharif returned to power. Karachi alone is said to have perhaps as many as 10,000 such "guest militants" and there is reason to believe that their immediate hosts in the local semina ries and neighbourhoods are preparing secret sanctuaries for them in case the government tries to evacuate them. Whether or not the regime will feel strong enough to attempt such an eviction - hence the confrontation with the whole of the Islamicist Esta blishment outside as well as inside the armed forces - is yet to be seen and is far from certain.

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