Pakistan may well have reached the end of the road and it may not be possible for it to take a turn back. To suggest this possibility is not to dramatize the reality and certainly not to underestimate the damage it can inflict on our country weighed down by corruption, incompetence, ineptitude, indifference and much else.
One piece of evidence in support of the end-of-the-road proposition is the US threat to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. This is quite a fall from its status of ‘front-line state’ in the eighties, when successive administrations in Washington turned a blind eye towards Pakistan’s determined bid to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and promote terrorism.
There is nothing very new and disturbing that Pakistan has done in recent months to provoke the United States. It became one of the principal sources of heroin in the mid-eighties when it was a close ally of the US in the jihad against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. It began training and arming Sikh terrorists at about the same time, or perhaps even earlier.
But the times have changed. The cold war is over and with it the compulsion for Washington and other Western capitals to suffer Pakistan’s role as a producer of narcotics and promoter of terrorism.
For all we know, the United States will not carry out the threat. Pakistan has a lot of friends in Washington and it still has itsuse. But Islamabad will not be able to take American goodwill for granted. It shall have to try to earn it. Indeed, it is already trying.
That is why the replacement of mullah general Javed Nasir, as chief of the powerful and notorious Inter-Services Intelligence and retirement from the army. But that can at best be regarded as a modest beginning. Much more will need to be done by Islamabad to keep in Washington’s good books. The latter is particularly concerned over China-Pakistan cooperation in the nuclear and the missile field.
Another pieces of evidence for the end-of-the-road theory is the dissolution of the National Assembly and dismissal of Mr. Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
Pakistan’s experiment in democracy has been an on-off-on-off affair. Since the assassination of Mr Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951, prime ministers have either been dismissed or overthrown in military coups and prime ministers in turn have been either puppets, or corrupt and dictatorial, often both.
Pakistan remains mired in the tribal ethos of vendetta, shifting loyalties, depending on the change in the patron’s and would-be patron’s fortunes and, therefore, capacity to punish and reward endless intrigues with little respect for principles and commitment to the public weal. To cut a long story short, Pakistan lacks the political culture which democracy needs to survive.
By this reckoning, President Khan’s ‘use’ (or abuse) of the 8th amendment to get rid of a former protege who he felt had become too big for his boots would not deserve to be considered an event of historic importance. But there is another aspect to this episode which lends it that significance. That aspect is a negative one – the absence of evidence that President Khan has acted with the prior consent, not to say at the behest, of the army command.
This makes it a coup of very different kind, not only in the sense of its being a ‘constitutional’ coup but in the sense of its being a chaotic coup, without any purpose beyond the personal needs and whims of a wily individual.
Doubtless Ms Benazir Bhutto too was dismissed in 1990 by the same President under the same constitutional provision. There are, however, notable differences in the two cases. Ms Bhutto was not trusted by the military-bureaucratic elite. At the very start, she had to accept Sahebzada Yaqub Khan as foreign minister and leave the nuclear weapons programme to the control of the army. Her interest in a measure of understanding with India could be used against her. In any case, the mullahs were opposed to her not only because she was a woman but also because she was not enthusiastic about General Zia’s Islamisation programme. And, on top of it all, she was a Sindhi.
Mr Nawaz Sharif did not suffer from any such ‘infirmity’. He was the ISI’s and Intelligence Bureau’s creation. The IB had rigged the election for him in 1990. He was willing to take orders from President Ishaq Khan for quite some time. He stepped up support for terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. He made shariat the country’s basic law thus placing it above the Constitution. On top of it all, he hails from Punjab; even his Kashmiri ancestry could be considered an asset in view of Islamabad’s bid to seize Kashmir.
On the face of it, the army command did not have any serious grievance against him. Why then did it not stand by him? Just because the President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister under the Constitution?
It would have been difficult to accept such an explanation at its face value even if there was not the additional complication of the charge by former army chief Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua’s widow that her husband had been poisoned. The charge came several weeks after his death and just on the eve of Mr Sharif’s dismissal.
Conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan, as in all such societies. The truth may take a long time be established, if it ever is. But if the army chief was indeed got rid of by whoever, it speaks of vulnerability at the heart of the Pakistani establishment. Moreover, if all President Khan needed to have his way was a new army chief who owed his office to him, it shows that the military establishment can easily be manipulated.
The Pakistan army is a disciplined force. Generally, it obediently follows the chief, though there have been cases of attempted coups by officers. But that may not be all. Though the necessary evidence is not available, because no one has yet looked for it, General Zia’s dictatorship, Islamisation and corruption among senior officers could not but have weakened considerably spirit de corps among commanders.
The talk of Punjabi domination over Pakistan both before and after the rise of Bangladesh has been commonplace. But we might take a pause and ask whether the Punjabi personality has not been devastated since the creation of Pakistan and whether the old landed elite created by the Raj has not been thrown off balance and divested of its elan.
It is a long and complicated story. But, it does seem to me that Pakistan is adrift on a turbulent sea and that we should look behind day-to-day surface developments to find out whether its aggressiveness is not a cover for loss of self-confidence and direction. It may well be ready to genuinely belong where its Islamic delusions lead it to wish to belong – Central Asia and West Asia.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 11 May 1993