A U.S.-backed dictator tossed overboard

August 19, 2008

Snehal Shingavi explains why the U.S. could no longer keep its man Musharraf in charge of Pakistan.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF has joined an infamous list of Pakistani military dictators--Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan--who have been forced to resign because of immense popular pressure.

Musharraf resigned from the presidency on August 18 rather than face impending impeachment charges, thanks to a deal brokered by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. While much of the Western media has been preoccupied with what effect his resignation will have on the "war on terror," they have ignored how Musharraf's ouster has invigorated the civil society organizations, unions and left-wing groups that took to the streets in celebration of his downfall.

In reality, Musharraf's resignation is a crisis of the West's own making. As Musharraf has drawn Pakistan further and further into U.S. imperial designs, popular dissatisfaction with these policies has grown. And in the past few years, Pakistan has seen its economy decline, acts of terror increase and violations of civil rights rise dramatically.

This is a far cry from the "order" that Musharraf promised when he came to power in 1999. As the chief of staff of the armed forces, Musharraf overthrew then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in a bloodless coup. Sharif's regime was riddled with corruption. Also, a section of the domestic ruling class chafed at Sharif's habit of antagonizing the West, first with nuclear weapons tests which incurred sanctions and then by criticizing U.S. foreign policy. Sharif threatened to oust Musharraf, but was himself forced from office instead.

Facing impeachment, Pervez Musharraf resigns as president of Pakistan.

Once in power, Musharraf immediately began a policy of reorganizing the military and the Pakistani economy. He benefited from a period of economic growth, stimulated in part by India's booming economy.

ONE OF the primary reasons that Musharraf lasted as long as he did was because of the role that he played in the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Musharraf was initially reluctant to collaborate, given that Pakistan's fortunes and regional influence had actually been raised as a consequence of the Taliban's capture of Kabul in the 1990s. But after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration needed support from frontline states like Pakistan in order to pull off an invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and hunt Osama bin Laden.

Thus, a combination of threats and economic benefits moved Pakistan more fully into the U.S. orbit. Pakistan's military bases, intelligence and personnel were made available to the U.S. military. In exchange, the U.S. lifted sanctions on Pakistan and helped steer foreign direct investment into the country. This cooperation with the U.S. war on terror, though, brought Musharraf into immediate conflict with several forces inside of his country.

First, there was the military and intelligence establishment, both of which had been inculcated with Islamic ideology since the military regime of Gen. Zia Ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977 and was killed in 1988. Musharraf's about-face, turning yesterday's Muslim allies into today's terrorist enemies, didn't sit well with large parts of the military. Army and intelligence operatives responded by only half-heartedly participating in efforts to secure the border, drive out al-Qaeda, close Islamic schools (madrassas) and shut down Islamist outfits.

For example, Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) did crack down on some Islamist outfits in the regions bordering Afghanistan--the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP). Yet at other times, it turned a blind eye to such organizations, allowing the Taliban and al-Qaeda to gain strength in the region. But the repression of Islamist movements antagonized Muslim organizations and ordinary Pakistanis, who chafed at the complicity of the Pakistani military in the U.S. imperial project.

Indeed, Musharraf's cooperation with the U.S. against Afghanistan and Iraq soon turned major Islamic parties and organizations against him. Several attempts were made on Musharraf's life by suicide bombers and other would-be assassins. The most spectacular confrontation with the Islamists took place last year, in a bloody police operation to oust Islamist militants who the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the city of Islamabad.

In order to carry out the U.S. war, Musharraf also had to pursue a domestic agenda of neoliberal, pro-business economic policies and the suppression of political freedoms and liberties. The first part of the agenda meant breakneck privatization of state-owned industries at bargain-basement prices, while the second meant that Musharraf routinely suspended the constitution, shut down mainstream media outlets, declared states of emergency and even disappeared political dissidents.

Perhaps the most egregious of Musharraf's crimes was the political engineering of his tenure as president. The 2002 referendum that Musharraf used to justify his seizing control of the presidency was widely disputed as rigged. Musharraf also angered the judiciary by refusing to resign his position as head of the Pakistani military, despite the fact that the constitution explicitly prohibits the executive from holding a position in the armed forces.

As Musharraf prepared to seek election in 2007, calls for him to resign from the army grew, sparking a protest in the judiciary itself. The election debacle began with the Supreme Court of Pakistan threatening to declare Musharraf's presidency illegal, and concluded with Musharraf suspending the constitution, firing the judges who opposed him and stacking the judiciary with loyal judges (who still hold their positions). This provoked a massive protest by lawyers, students and ordinary Pakistanis to demand the reinstatement of the judges. Popular dissatisfaction only sharpened.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL shenanigans of Musharraf allowed the U.S. to engineer the return of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), to contest parliamentary elections. She could have provided the legitimacy that the U.S. needed to conduct its war on terror, but her assassination earlier this year meant that the U.S. would have to cobble together a much more fragile set of allies.

In the wake of Bhutto's assassination, her PPP won the largest number of seats in the parliamentary elections, followed closely by Nawaz Sharif's PML-N. The two rival parties formed an uneasy anti-Musharraf coalition government, and it appeared that Musharraf might be able to survive because of the government's weakness.

By summer, however, the PPP and PML-N closed ranks to push for Musharraf's impeachment. Next, Pakistan's four provincial legislatures passed votes of no-confidence in Musharraf. An impeachment proceeding appeared inevitable. So Musharraf agreed to a plan hatched by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia which allowed him to leave his office and potentially accept voluntary exile. In the meantime, the office of the presidency will be assumed temporarily by Mohammadmian Soomro, a Musharraf ally, until the parliament can elect a new president.

The biggest beneficiaries of Musharraf's resignation will be the PPP, headed by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N. But Musharraf's resignation has actually ignited and inspired grassroots activism throughout the country--and unless the judiciary is restored and the economy improves markedly, the instability in the country is not likely to end soon.

Also, the resignation of Musharraf hardly caught the West by surprise. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of the PPP made a recent trip to Washington with the intention of convincing the Bush regime that the war on terror could be fought without Musharraf at the helm. The U.S., while unhappy at losing a reliable ally, didn't lift a finger to help Musharraf. The Bush administration realizes that the PPP is willing to play the role the Americans want them to.

THE U.S. needs continued Pakistani support for a number of political and military objectives. On the one hand, Pakistan's position as an important Muslim nation allows the U.S. to project the lie that it has regional allies. On the other hand, it needs Pakistan to secure its border with Afghanistan, which has enabled the Taliban and its allies to obtain resources and reach safe havens.

The new civilian government in Pakistan will likely produce some changes in military policy. But these will take some time to take effect and are not likely to be substantial. In fact, both the lawyers' movement and the PPP have campaigned for Musharraf's ouster on the basis that they would be better equipped to handle the terrorists without him.

And the problems that Pakistan faces will not be resolved by simply removing Musharraf. Tariq Ali recently explained:

Musharraf's departure will highlight the problems that confront the country, which is in the grip of a food and power crisis that is creating severe problems in every city. Inflation is out of control and was approaching the 15 percent mark in May 2008. Gas (used for cooking in many homes) prices have risen by 30 percent. Wheat, the staple diet of most people has seen a 20 percent price hike since November 2007, and while the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization admits that the world's food stocks are at record lows, there is an additional problem in Pakistan. Too much wheat is being smuggled into Afghanistan to serve the needs of the NATO armies. The poor are the worst hit, but middle-class families are also affected and according to a June 2008 survey, 86 percent of Pakistanis find it increasingly difficult to afford flour on a daily basis, for which they blame their own new government.

Some of these economic troubles could have been solved with the extraordinary amount of money that Pakistan spends on its military and the war on terror. But as long as the priorities for Pakistan are determined by what is best for the country's tiny elite and the U.S. empire, ordinary Pakistanis will continue to suffer.

The hope for real change in Pakistan will depend on whether or not the social movements of the day can seize on the opportunity to advance an altogether different--one that begins with removing Pakistan from the project of building the American empire.

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