Pakistan faces a period of grave uncertainty, possibly the gravest since its birth, in both international and domestic terms. The current upheaval resulting from the clash between President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Mr Nawaz Sharif, and the latter’s dismissal from the office of prime minister, only spotlights this reality.
The American threat to include Pakistan among states it holds guilty of sponsoring terrorism – such as Iraq, Libya, Cuba and North Korea speaks for itself. The change from being a ‘frontline’ state worthy of all-out military and economic assistance, despite its defiance on so crucial an issue as acquisition of nuclear weapons, to one targeted for sanctions is dramatic and not easy for Islamabad to accept and adjust to. The shock would unhinge any ruling establishment.
Islamabad targeted India wilfully, first in Punjab and then in Jammu Kashmir as well. Its support for terrorists in Punjab and Kashmir did not result from the jihad against Soviet military presence in Afghan and the Najib regime in Kabul. But the irony of it is that the American administration fully backed the jihad, which has now spilled over into Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt and is causing anxiety in Washington.
As leader of the industrialized world, Washington cannot however afford the luxury of remembering its contribution to the enormous expansion of trade in narcotics and arms and training of terrorist-guerrillas in Pakistan. It has to do all in its power to check this nefarious flow. In plain terms, it has to put the maximum possible pressure on Pakistan.
With the end of the cold war and the threat of China emerging as a significant military power, Washington has come to be concerned with the consequences of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India as well. The larger American design requires India to be stable.
Pakistan is, of course, not without leverage. China remains its ally in all but name. Iran is reported to have offered to pick up its entire defence budget of around $3.5 billion in return for assistance in the nuclear field. Even if Islamabad does not fall for this tempting offer, it will raise its status in Riyadh; Saudi rulers must shudder at the prospect of a Pakistan-Iran concord. But it is the umbrella of the United States that has made it possible to reconcile divergent demands and pressures on it. Islamabad cannot afford to be deprived of that umbrella.
The forces that have been unleashed in the North-West Frontier Province would have been extremely difficult for Pakistan to control even if its calculations in respect of post-Najib Afghanistan had not gone awry. But they have. The two together must be a nightmare for Islamabad.
The narcotic trade is estimated at around $13 billion a year. The arms market can cater to all possible customers.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, in collaboration with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islam disposes of enormous resources in money, arms and men outside the control of the Pakistan government. In the conditions created by the Islamisation programme, Islamabad cannot dare act against the combine. Hekmatyar is not accountable to anyone and Pakistan cannot either disown him or place him in power in Kabul. President Zia-ul-Haq’s make-believe world lies in ruins.
At the very least, Pakistan needs a strong government with a single centre of authority if it is to even attempt to cope with these problems. A reference to the past should help clinch the issue. As President Ayub Khan’s authority came to be challenged in the wake of the 1965 war with India, Pakistan began to drift. The drift, as we know, culminated in the break-up of the country and the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign state in 1971.
Compared to today, the situation in the late 60s was far less complicated and by 1971, Pakistan was on the way back into American favour as a bridge to China. Mr Henry Kissinger, it may be recalled, made his secret trip to Beijing from Pakistan. Even so, the Pakistani establishment did not feel at ease with itself till 1980 when the United States resumed military aid in view of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. That strengthened President Zia’s position and enabled him to dominate the domestic scene with confidence.
In view of the paucity of information, it is not possible to say whether the clash between President Khan and Mr Nawaz Sharif resulted, in the first instance, from awareness on the part of one or both of them of the need for one centre of authority. But one point is obvious.
If Mr Nawaz Sharif took the initiative and threw the gauntlet, he could have done so either because he had been driven to despair by the pinpricks of the President and his men, or he had been terribly ill-advised. This was not a battle he could have won.
Mr Ghulam Ishaq Khan is not the kind of man who could agree to the office of President being divested of the power the eighth amendment confers on it, even if he was not wanting a second term for himself. He sees himself as guardian of the military-bureaucratic establishment that has ruled the country since 1947, with or without the help of martial law.
President Ishaq Khan’s action in dismissing the Prime Minister has not been well received in India. This is understandable not only because, as a democracy, we favour democracy in other countries but also because we are not sufficiently cognizant of the correlation of social forces in Pakistan to realize that the neighbour is not in a position to move over to full-fledged democracy.
Pakistan is different from India not only because it is Muslim and its rulers have taken steps, especially in the past decade, to strengthen its Islamic identity. For the purpose of this discussion, the more important difference is that, unlike our country, Pakistan possesses a reasonably coherent military-bureaucratic elite which is rooted in a well-entrenched, landed aristocracy and is sustained by a powerful tradition of military service.
This does not mean that the people of Pakistan do not crave for non-repressive democratic rule. But it does mean that the necessary socio-economic revolution has not taken place.
An industrial-commercial class has doubtless grown. But it is not in a position to effectively challenge the establishment.
Mr Nawaz Sharif himself did not come up as a representative of this class. He moved up the ladder provided by President Zia.
President Khan paved the way for him in 1990 when he dismissed Ms Benazir Bhutto as prime minister and the official machinery rigged the election for him. Ms Bhutto’s own Pakistan People’s Party continues to be dominated by landed interests.
In realistic terms, the choice in Pakistan is still between military rule and guided democracy under the eighth amendment. And the tragedy of Pakistan is that neither can be a stable arrangement.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 27 April 1993