Pakistan’s election discredited already, while US plans further interventions in the country

The political situation is Pakistan so precarious that few people, including the country’s president, general (retired) Pervez Musharraf, can say with certainty that the parliamentary elections scheduled for February 18 will indeed be held on time. Even if they are, there is little prospect of change unless Musharraf resigns and allows genuine civilian rule. There are widespread allegations of bogus voters’ lists, illegal use of government machinery and vehicles to support candidates allied to Musharraf, and of course of voter intimidation. At a time when people are afraid to go out to get the necessities of life, why would they want to risk their lives going to polling stations when the threat of violence is real and several political parties have boycotted the polls? Even in relatively peaceful times, voter turnout in Pakistan has seldom passed the 25-30 percent mark; there is no reason for it exceed this figure in an environment of complete chaos.

To get some idea of how bad the situation is, consider the following figures published in a report prepared by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. In 2007 there were 1,442 violent incidents, which resulted in 9,000 casualties, 3,448 of them fatal. These figures were 492 percent higher than in 2005. There were also sixty suicide attacks that killed 770 people; of these 58 percent were civilians. Add to these the skyrocketing prices of such items of daily need as flour, sugar and cooking oil, if people can find them; yet Musharraf has the gall to claim that he has improved Pakistan’s economy. One must wonder which planet he lives on.

Large parts of the country, especially the volatile North West Frontier Province (NWFP), are in the grip of armed insurrection. To the mayhem in North and South Waziristan, Swat, Dir and the Kurram Valley must also now be added the places where tens of thousands of troops have been deployed to fight the people. In the two parts of Waziristan it is the tribesmen fighting government troops to a standstill; in the Kurram Valley sectarian violence is taking a heavy toll. During Muharram ceremonies, the only road from Kohat through Hangu to Parachinar near the Afghan border was closed. Military checkpoints were manned by heavily armed soldiers to prevent sectarian violence. In Hangu army helicopters were deployed; heavy artillery was placed on mountain-tops to ward off fighting between Shi’as and Sunnis, as occurred last year, when the main bazaar in the city was set ablaze. The fires raged for three days, destroying every shop. This year Hangu remained relatively calm, but the situation in Parachinar was grim even before Muharram. Heavy rockets were fired by both Shi’as and Sunnis, killing scores of people.

As this mayhem was underway in Pakistan, the New York Times reported (January 6, 2008) that the US was considering direct intervention in Pakistan’s tribal areas to rout out the militants, clearly implying that Pakistan was not capable of doing so itself. It reported that top officials met at the White House on January 4 to consider joint CIA and Special Forces operations in Pakistan. Musharraf has spoken out against US intervention, saying that it would increase turmoil and lead to massive “collateral damage” because the Americans would have to kill women and children to reach the “militants”, though he is in no position to resist the US’s pressure. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27 and widely believed allegations that his supporters were involved in her murder have weakened Musharraf considerably. His resignation as army chief in November has also removed a major prop that he had used for eight years to cling to power. In mid-January, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, the new army chief, told commanders not to meet Musharraf without his prior approval and that they should avoid direct involvement in politics. He also announced that the nearly thousand military officers occupying civilian posts would resign them and return to full-time military duty. If this really happens, it will be a welcome development, but it is being widely interpreted as a move to distance the army from Musharraf’s policies. On January 22, the Ex-Servicemen’s Society (which represents retired military officers) issued a statement after a meeting in Islamabad in which it demanded that Musharraf resign as president to pave the way for “genuine democracy” through “free and fair elections”. Musharraf is unlikely to heed such advice, but Kiani’s announcements and America’s demands must be worrying him and making him feel vulnerable.

It is the US’s intentions that must give him nightmares. The US has pursued a deliberate policy of destabilising Pakistan in order to have a pretext to seize control of its nuclear assets. Few analysts in Pakistan have any doubts about America’s real intentions. Since September 2001, when Musharraf joined America’s war on terror, he has been forced to use the Pakistan army to kill thousands of its own citizens to please the US. At least 100,000 Pakistani troops have been deployed in the border region with Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of more than a thousand Pakistani soldiers, most of them paramilitary personnel of the Frontier Constabulary, yet the US still demands that Pakistan “must do more”. What constitutes “more” and for what purpose has never been defined, but the idea is to pit Pakistani troops against their own people to create a wall of distrust so that, in case of a real emergency, when troops would need to fight an external enemy, they will have little or no support from their people. That critical point has almost been reached in Pakistan; the army has become so unpopular that officers dare not venture out in public in uniform. There was a time when military officers were revered and respected as defenders of the country’s frontiers, but no longer.

Benazir Bhutto’s murder must be viewed against the backdrop of these developments. The resulting political uncertainty and civil unrest have brought Pakistan to the brink. The government’s allegation that Baitullah Mehsud, a tribal commander in Waziristan, was responsible for Benazir’s murder suits America’s purpose. While Mehsud’s spokesman denied their involvement, saying that they do not kill women, American and Pakistani officials continue to blame him, supporting their demand to intensify the “war or terror”. And if Islamabad cannot do it–”as the US says it cannot–”then America will use its own forces to deal with the tribal “militants”. This is a self-serving policy: to provoke a reaction so that America can continue with its policy of aggression, just as the so-called war on terror created the resistance against foreign troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and now in Pakistan.

Benazir’s murder led to much breast-beating in the West, conveniently glossing over her many failings: massive corruption and gross incompetence, lack of empathy for the Pakistani people, her total subservience to the US and, most critically, her close alliance with maulana Fazlur Rahman, godfather of the Taliban. It was during Benazir’s second term as prime minister that the Taliban emerged on the scene in October 1994, largely as the result of proposals by Sir Nicholas Barrington, then British high commissioner in Pakistan. His ideas received the full backing of the Americans because the rulers in Kabul at the time (Burhanuddin Rabbani was the president, backed by the Northern Alliance warlord, Ahmed Shah Massoud, another favourite of the West, who was killed on September 9, 2001) could not establish security to facilitate the construction of a gas and oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. They had to be replaced by someone who could establish law and order in at least that part of the country–”western and southwestern Afghanistan–”where the pipeline was to be laid.

The Taliban were enormously successful in controlling the warlords and the Americans were very pleased. Not only did American officials, especially Robin Raphel, then assistant secretary of state for South Asia, visit Kabul in April and September 1996, but a delegation of the Taliban was also invited to Houston in December 1997 by the American oil consortium, Unocal. They were dined (but not wined for obvious reasons) in hopes of persuading them to sign the pipeline deal with Unocal, an American company. When the Taliban gave the contract to Bridas, an Argentine company, the Americans were furious; they viewed this as a betrayal and the Taliban had to be removed and replaced.

A decade later, the Americans were again banking on Benazir Bhutto to provide a civilian gloss to Musharraf’s military regime. Wendy Chamberlain, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, proudly stated in the New York Times (December 29, 2007): “We are a player in the Pakistani political system”. Perhaps, but there are other players as well in the Pakistani system who are prepared to protect their turf as viciously as the Americans are prepared to pursue their interests.

With Benazir eliminated, the political field is wide open, but one thing is certain: the general elections on February 18 will not change anything in Pakistan. In fact, there is a greater than even chance that the results will include even more violence, and that at the end of it Musharraf will be driven from office. That would not be a bad outcome, even if nothing else were achieved.