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IUK: Fisk - Farewell to democracy in Pakistan
By Robert Fisk
28/10/2001 9:58 pm Sun
Robert Fisk: Farewell to democracy in Pakistan
'Far better to have a Mubarak or King Fahd than let Muslims vote
for a real government that might oppose US policies'
26 October 2001
Armoured warefare schools, signals headquarters, artillery ranges,
military museums, cavalry lines, infantry battalion compounds...
every few hundred yards in every city, you come across them.
Driving around Pakistan is like touring a barracks.
Cross the Indus river at Attock and the thump of shellfire changes
the air pressure as General Pervez Musharraf's tanks move down
the range. Along the roadsides are artillery pieces dating back to
the Raj, 45-pounders and French armour and old Sherman tanks
on concrete plinths to remind Pakistanis of their heroic martial past.
Their national defence journal carries stirring tales by former chiefs
of staff and extracts from the 1962 war diaries of the East Pakistan
Rifles. And this is supposed to be a nation threatened with Islamic
It's an odd phenomenon, but there are times when the West seems
to be more worried about the "Islamisation'' of Pakistan than
Pakistanis are themselves. For has a military dictatorship ever
been more blessed than that of General Musharraf? General
Zia-ul-Haq was held in contempt by the West when he hanged
prime minister Bhutto - but he was elevated to ally and friend the
moment that we needed his help in the anti-Soviet war in
Afghanistan. However, by 1993 Pakistan was almost declared a
"state sponsor of terrorism'' by the United States because of its
support for Kashmiri Muslim guerrillas.
When President Clinton arrived in the subcontinent last year, he
paid a state visit to India but gave General Musharraf - who had
still to declare himself president - only a few hours, favouring
Pakistan with a one-day return trip, a lecture on the evils of
Osama bin Laden and an appeal to General Musharraf not to hang
the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Nor can General Musharraf have been too pleased with Colin
Powell's ode to liberty last January. "There should be no question
in any world leader's mind that the most essential ingredient for
success in this 21st century is a free people and a government
that derives its right to govern from the consent of such people,''
the US Secretary of State announced: "...America stands ready to
help any country that wishes to join the democratic world.''
Then came 11 September and General Powell produced a new
song sheet. "President Bush,'' he told us on 16 October, "asked
me... to demonstrate our enduring commitment to our relationship
with Pakistan... we are also looking forward to strengthening our
co-operation on a full range of bilateral and regional issues...
we're truly at the beginning of a strengthened relationship, a
relationship that will grow and thrive in the months and years
ahead.'' All of which just goes to show what the loan of a few air
bases and the arrest of a few government-sponsored Islamists can
do. General Musharraf had taken "bold and courageous action"
against "international terrorism".
And in the blinking of an eye, there was General Powell promising
to take up the Kashmir dispute with India - the very nation that
almost persuaded America's State Department to put Pakistan on
its "terrorism" list in 1992. Newsweek outlined the US government's
view with alarming, if unconscious, frankness. "It may be a good
thing that Pakistan is ruled by a friendly military dictator,'' the
magazine concluded, "rather than what could well be a hostile
This, of course, is the very policy that dictates Washington's
relations with the Arab world. Far better to have a Mubarak or a
King Abdullah or a King Fahd running the show than to let the
Arabs vote for a real government that might oppose US policies in
Corrupt, lawless, drug-ridden, and inherently unstable Pakistan
may be, but General Musharraf allows a kind of freedom of speech
to continue. Anyone used to the arid wastes of Arab journalism
can only be surprised by the debate in the Pakistani press, the
often violent anti-Musharraf views expressed in the letters pages
and the columnists who argue forcefully for a return to democracy.
If General Musharraf has to allow Islamists their freedom to "let off
steam'' - as Pakistanis like to say - then he has to give equal
space to the democrats.
Aqil Shah put it very well when he wrote in Lahore's Friday Times
last week that, by allying himself with America's "War on Terror'',
General Musharraf had secured de facto international acceptance
for his 1999 coup. Suddenly, all he had wished for - the lifting of
sanctions, massive funding for Pakistan's crumbling industry, IMF
loans, a $375m (£263m) debt rescheduling and humanitarian aid -
has been given him.
While General Powell mutters a few words about political freedom
- and none at all about Pakistan's nuclear tests - we hear no
more of General Musharraf's widely publicised "roadmap'' to
The problem, as Mr Shah points out, is that future peace and
stability requires sustained investment in solid secular democracies
- not in stable dictatorships. Yet the United States is now laying
the foundations of a long-term autocracy in Pakistan, a
dictatorship not unlike those that lie like a cancer across the
The United States likes to call this a "strategic engagement'' and is
already, in its embassy's private press briefings, reminding
journalists of the corruption that smeared the democratically
elected Sharif government. Far better, surely, to have an honest,
down-to-earth, clean military man in charge.
Of course, we must forget that it was Pakistan's Interservices
Intelligence (ISI) outfits - the highest ranks of the country's security
agencies - that set up the Taliban, funnelled weapons into
Afghanistan and grew rich on the narcotics trade. Ever since the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the ISI has worked
alongside the CIA, funding the mullahs and maulawis now
condemned as the architects of "world terror''.
Most Pakistanis now realise that the ISI - sanctioned by
Washington rather than Pakistan's own rulers - turned into a
well-armed and dangerous mafia, and while money was poured
into its smuggling activities, Pakistan's people lacked education,
security and a health service. No wonder they turned to Islam and
the madrassa schools for food and teaching.
But will anything really change? Pakistan's military is now more
important than ever, an iron hand to maintain order within the state
while its superpower ally bombs the ruins of Afghanistan. Driving
past all those compounds and cavalry lines and barrack squares
in Pakistan, one can only be shocked by the profound social
division they represent.
Outside in the street, Afghan refugees and Pakistan's urban poor
root through garbage tips and crowd on to soot-pumping buses to
work in sweatshops and brick factories. Inside, behind the ancient,
newly painted cannons and battalion flags, rose bushes surround
well-tended lawns and officers' messes decorated with polished
No rubbish litters this perfect world of discipline. Why should
anyone living here want a return to corrupt democracy? Especially
when America is their friend.