George W Bush and General Pervez Musharraf are reportedly good friends. They are also both, at least apparently, on the hot-seat. George Bush is dealing with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, with resistance to the American occupation growing by the day. Meanwhile, Musharraf has opened himself up on many fronts – from the National Security Council (NSC) (chaired by the president, the council gives the military a legal role in governance with powers of vetting decisions affecting national ‘interest’) to refusing to commit to taking off his uniform at the end of the year – and therefore remains under intense pressure and scrutiny. Bush and his team of neo-cons continue to harp on Musharraf´s stellar performance since September 11, while Musharraf continues to do America´s bidding, the recent ‘successful’ 12-day military offensive in South Waziristan (on the border with Afghanistan) the most visible example.
On the whole, the victimisation of political opponents that the Musharraf government has engaged in consistently since its takeover four and a half years ago has remained largely outside the purview of criticism from the Bush administration. As a gesture of tokenism, the US State Department did issue a statement expressing “regret” at the sentencing of prominent opposition leader Javed Hashmi – also the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) president and staunch critic of Musharraf’s 1999 coup – to 23 years in jail with hard labour. Similarly, as most other pliant allies of the United States have done, Musharraf´s government has tiptoed around the flagrant violations of democratic and human ethics that have characterised US actions in the war on terror.
Ironically, while Bush could be ousted from the White House by the popular vote come November, Musharraf remains largely unaccountable to anyone within Pakistan. Perhaps more importantly, the geo-political situation in Southwest Asia and the strategic needs of the United States – regardless of whether Bush is in power or not – is what is likely to be the determinant of Musharraf´s fate.
Despite the unquestionably frightening amount of power that he wields, Bush is dealing with burgeoning crises, including the unprecedented rise in price of petroleum. Meanwhile, his initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan, undertaken precisely to maintain the preposterous levels of cheap oil consumption in the US, are beginning at long last to backfire drastically. Then there are the continuing accusations that a lot more was known about September 11 than has been consistently claimed over the past two and-a-half years. Levels of dissent within the United States remain abnormally high, even if not immediately visible through the prism of the mainstream media.
As Bush plunges into his re-election bid, one feels that Musharraf will play a significant role in determining his fate. The much awaited captures of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden will have much to do with Musharraf´s resolve, which, as has been proven in Waziristan, is not lacking. But Musharraf has problems of his own, and continues to create more for himself even as he seeks desperately to consolidate his hold on power. Between the NSC and the uniform issue, at least one thing has become reassuringly clear to Musharraf and his aides – that the mullahs are now firmly on board and are definitely not inclined to rock the boat. And given the absence of any other popular political force on the scene, Musharraf might even consider himself to be sitting pretty.
And why not? The structuring of the NSC once and for all will institutionalise the army´s grip over state affairs. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q and the defectors from the Pakistan People´s Party that helped create the present majority in parliament required to form a government, have conveniently insisted that Musharraf stay in uniform. And for the time being, the overseas imperial power is patronising the army with no holds barred. The Musharraf bandwagon, meanwhile, keeps rolling along with more and more turncoats and opportunists jumping on board. Incredibly, there are now over 20 sitting ministers in the federal cabinet, not to mention the fact that each provincial cabinet is also bursting at the seams. The rationale is straightforward — in exchange for support this government needs to continue creating patronage-distribution opportunities for ‘independents’ and opposition deserters. It hardly matters that there is absolutely no need for state ministers for every second portfolio. Furthermore, there is the burden on the national exchequer of the inordinate number of sitting ministers. Rather than dismantling the decadent, patronage-based political culture that prevails in the country, the Musharraf years have in fact reinforced it to a very large extent.
Jamali & Co.
Of course, none of this is happening without the support and international ‘legitimacy’ that the Bush administration has provided Musharraf, in spite of major potential crises such as the Qadeer Khan nuclear proliferation fiasco (‘Inside the nuclear closet’, March-April 2004 Himal). What concerns the principled few who continue to demand democratisation of state and society in Pakistan is the possibility that, sooner or later, a far more convincing political face than that of Prime Minister Jamali & Co. will be restored to the seat of government because of the imperatives of international ‘legitimacy’ – to be dictated by the United States, of course. In particular, Benazir Bhutto´s Pakistan People´s Party (PPP), the only large political party in this country that has actively refrained from criticising the US in recent times, would be the most obvious candidate to take on this job if and when the need arises.
But then, as they say this is deja vu all over again! The political elite of Pakistan have always settled for second best at the hands of the army, and there should be little doubt that this dynamic has ensured that both the political process and the people of Pakistan remain in suspended animation as the economic and power elite cohabit with the military. The political elite may be completely unrepresentative of the people of this country, but it is definitely more representative than a hierarchical institution such as the army ever can be, which is why it needs to be brought in and compromised. Regardless of how strong or weak the opposition to military rule has been, Pakistan’s political elite have never wilfully challenged the army´s monopoly over state affairs when perhaps it could. In the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in spite of coming to power riding the crest of an anti-establishment wave, gave the army the option to come back into the political fold after the ignominy of East Pakistan. In 1988, his daughter Benazir had the option to defy the military establishment after returning to mainstream politics on the back of considerable popular support, but she too compromised at an early stage of her comeback, thereby setting the stage for the debacle of the 1990s.
On this occasion, should Bush — or John Kerry depending on the outcome of the November presidential election in the US — decide that the image of Musharraf´s military rule needs to be tempered by the populist liberalism of Benazir´s PPP, some might consider this a victory for democracy. But it would not be, because once again Pakistani political elite would be compromising basic democratic principles to come to power. And what kind of power would the PPP wield in such a dispensation? The situation since October 2002 has provided a glimpse of just how independent puppet civilian rule is.
So let us hope that Pakistan’s politicians do not make a mess of things again. Not because they are “bloody civilians” as military masters are so keen to categorise those who are not privileged enough to wear a uniform. Not because their supposed constituents – the people – compel them to make a mess of things. But because they are short-sighted, opportunists, and because their class interests simply do not permit them to do any differently. It is not often that the nexus between global imperialism, the state elite and multinational capital is exposed in the manner that it has been over the past two years (‘Fauji’s foundation’, November 2003 Himal). Ordinary Pakistanis have come to realise that the army is hardly the country´s great defender as it claims to be, but should the PPP be so foolish as to come back to power at the behest of the United States, the army will once again get itself out of a very tight jam.