Pakistan’s Wounded Dictator


After more than two weeks of supreme military command, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf has had enough. Enough of international pressure to lift martial law, that is.

Claiming to "have introduced the essence of democracy in Pakistan, whether anyone believes it or not," Musharraf has been more and more candid about his impatience with the West’s (sometimes half-hearted) condemnation of his strong-arm tactics. My personal favorite quotes in this regard come from a BBC interview on November 16.

"Did I go mad? Or suddenly, my personality changed? Am I Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?" the general/president asked. "Have I done anything constitutionally illegal? Yes, I did it on 3 November," he said (thereby admitting that suspending the constitution is in fact unconstitutional). "But did I do it before? Not once."

When I read these interviews, I can’t help but feel slightly sorry for the dictator-who-feels-misunderstood. Statements like these underscore the fact that he never really understood the rules of the game he has been playing since he came to power in a 1999 coup d’état.

Democracy Shamocracy

In 2001, Pervez Musharraf had a choice: try to respond to the will of his own people, most of whom would be dead set against Pakistan playing any role in the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan, or try to respond to the will of the world’s largest (if not only remaining) super power, who at that point wasn’t above bullying and bribing to get what it needed from Pakistan one way or another. Musharraf chose the latter, implicitly valuing international public opinion (or even a particular kind of international public opinion) over Pakistani domestic public opinion.

By doing so, Musharraf thought–correctly as it turns out–that he would enjoy some benefits on the world stage. Instead of being portrayed as a petty and narrow-minded dictator, it was in the interest of those defending U.S. military strategy to portray him as a new kind of Islamic leader, taking Pakistan towards democracy and secularism. Musharraf himself played this up, and at times signed agreements to give up many of his powers, or at least to stop heading both the civilian and military arms of the Pakistani government. In retrospect, it’s obvious that he had no intention of following through on these commitments. It was obvious even at the time those commitments were made for most observers, especially those not on the payroll of Washington or Islamabad.

Musharraf–like so many U.S.-backed dictators before him, including a couple from Pakistan–assumed that this support was a kind of loyalty, that President George W. Bush considered him "our man in Islamabad" and that this implied a loyalty to Musharraf the man. Instead, as any first year political science student could have told Musharraf, the United States is merely looking after its own interests, and when the United States perceives him to be a political liability they will drop him faster than a hot potato. The debate in Washington circles now is about whether or not that line has already been crossed, and, if so, what to do about it.

The Pakistani People

The interesting thing about this story is that the Pakistani people, in whom ultimate authority would reside in a democratic system, don’t come into it at all. Indeed, the mainstream political parties had been vying for the position of "successor of the general" with clear U.S. orchestration. And it must be said that both the candidates for such a position, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, were equally delusional about their relationship with the United States and were equally adamant about putting U.S. interests above those of the Pakistani people when they themselves were in power in the 1990s.

In this respect, it is possible that the "General’s coup" may have done a world of good. If the result of these developments is an opposition movement comprised of a broad spectrum of political parties that have to agree on a core set of principles upon which future Pakistani governments would have to be built, Pakistan could finally be in a position to answer some of the questions that have been plaguing the country since its founding in 1947. These include: What kind of government should Pakistan adopt and how should a meaningful system of checks and balances be set up? What is the role of religion/secularism/human rights within Pakistan? What are its relations with its neighbors, especially India, going to look like? And what will Pakistan’s relationship with its biggest funder, the United States, look like, especially given that the Pakistan economy could probably do without such patronage for the foreseeable future?

If these questions remain unaddressed and undebated even after Musharraf leaves (for the General’s coup is likely to be the end of Musharraf, just as the King’s coup in Nepal saw the end of King Gyanendra) it will matter little to the average Pakistani whether the next leader is appointed based on the number of votes she received or on the number of generals he was able to bring to bring to his support.

U.S. Policy Decisions

For the United States, the policy decisions are even starker. There is no doubt that the United States has used Pakistan to have a hand, and a sometimes bloody hand, in South and Central Asian politics since about 1971. The worst crimes of U.S. complicity occurred not in the recent past, but rather during the U.S.-supported war against Bangladesh in the 1970s, and the subsequent U.S. backed dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1970s and 1980s. Cold war pretexts aside, the United States has seen Pakistan as its own military base in South Asia, with strategic importance throughout the region and extending to China and Central Asia. As long as that remains the case, all talk of democracy in Pakistan is a thin charade.

What the United States wants is a government that can take orders from Washington, not from its own people, who may not always comply with what Washington wants. This uncontroversial reality goes against all of the rhetoric about connections between democracy and the "war on terror"; the case of Pakistan shows its not democracy, but clear lines of accountability between national governments and Washington that is the real foreign policy objective here.

The alternative to the deplorable status quo would be real democracy, meaning for the first time in a long time (maybe for the first time ever), a Pakistani government that represents the will and interests of its own people. One implication of Pakistani democracy would almost certainly be an end to ties with the United States or at least an end to the cozy relationship between Washington and Islamabad that’s existed in the past. Pakistanis have long been ready for a genuine Pakistani democracy. Is Washington ready for it?

Line of Fire

In the face of this somewhat bleak situation, Musharraf continually avoids any mention of the facts and sticks to his story: He’s Washington’s man and the West’s best hope to ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear technology does not fall into the wrong hands. His 2006 book In the Line of Fire and the subsequent self-aggrandizing U.S. book tour certainly tried very hard to push the narrative of Musharraf being the best soldier Washington could ever wish for. But regardless of whether or not there is an element of truth to that story, the current suspension of the constitution has nothing to do with it, as much as the government’s press office may wish it were otherwise. It is rather about a supposedly democratic-minded President behaving like a despot when it seemed clear that a court judgment was not going to go his way.

A few days ago the court judgment did go his way, after he replaced several members of the Supreme Court, leaving no doubt as to the motivation behind the two-week-old state of emergency. And it is about those political moves of a year ago–book tours and the like–backfiring, as they were intended to be a political campaign for the 2007 elections, but addressed an international audience. The United States may be powerful, and launching his election campaign with a book tour may have been a good idea, but the U.S. public does not elect the Pakistani parliament. Well, not under the current constitution in any case.

Perhaps Musharraf would do well to remember his own words from 2001: "I am not at all a politician. I don’t think I’m cut out for politics," he said. "I am certainly not going to stand for election."

It’s too late for Musharraf to live up to that commitment, but it is not too late for the United States to withdraw its support for Musharraf’s regime.

SAMEER DOSSANI is a longtime social justice and human rights activist and director of 50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice.. He is a second-generation Pakistani immigrant who has worked on campaigns against domestic violence ("honor crimes") and against Asian Development Bank mega-projects in Pakistan.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus.

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