Next Door to War

Tariq Ali

  • Descent into Chaos: How the War against Islamic Extremism Is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid
    Allen Lane, 484 pp, £25.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 7139 9843 6
  • Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars within by Shuja Nawaz
    Oxford, 655 pp, £16.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 547660 6

To recapitulate. After Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last December, her will was read out to the family’s assembled political retainers. Her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, inherited the Pakistan People’s Party, but until he came of age her husband, Asif Zardari, would act as regent. The general election, postponed following her death, took place in February. The immediate impact of the stunning electoral defeat suffered by General Musharraf’s political party and his factotums was to dispel the disillusionment of the citizenry. Not for long. Musharraf is still clinging on to the presidency; Zardari is running the government with the help of his old cronies; the judges dismissed by Musharraf have still not been reinstated; the economy is a mess; and the US Air Force has started dropping bombs on the North-West Frontier Province again. Poor Pakistan.

Forty-five per cent of the electorate voted in the election, more than expected, though the figure was much lower in the Frontier Province, where the spillage from the Afghan war discouraged voters from braving the journey to the polling stations. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, had ordered the ISI not to interfere with the polls and instructed his generals to cease all bilateral contacts with the now civilian president. Musharraf’s defeat would have been even worse had it not been for the violence and vote-rigging in Karachi, where his loyal and armed allies from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) threatened opposition candidates and their supporters. In at least three cases, armed MQM goons threatened TV journalists with death if the chicanery was reported.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – or BFP (Bhutto Family Party), as some of its own members refer to it in semi-public – emerged as the largest single party in the country, thus propelling the widower Bhutto to power. The Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by the ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, came second nationally, but emerged as the largest party in the largest province, the Punjab, where Nawaz’s younger brother Shahbaz is now ensconced as chief minister. In the Frontier Province, the secular Awami National Party (ANP) defeated the Islamists, once again contradicting the widespread view that jihadis are either strong or popular in Pakistan. In Sindh the PPP won comfortably and could have governed on its own, but chose to do so with the MQM. In Baluchistan, largely because of military actions in the province, which borders on Afghanistan, and the killings of nationalist leaders, most local opposition parties boycotted the polls, and it was in this province alone that Musharraf’s party won a majority of assembly seats.

Five months on, democratic fervour, or naivety, has turned to anger. Old Corruption is back. The country is in the grip of a food and power crisis. Inflation is approaching 15 per cent. The price of gas (used for cooking in many homes) has risen by 30 per cent and the price of wheat by more than 20 per cent since November 2007. Food and commodity prices are rising all over the world, but there is an additional problem in Pakistan: too much wheat is being smuggled into Afghanistan to feed the Nato armies. According to a recent survey, 86 per cent of Pakistanis find it increasingly difficult to afford flour, for which they blame their new government. Zardari’s approval rating has plummeted to 13 per cent. Were an election to be held now, he would lose to Sharif by a substantial margin. That this old rogue is now thought of as a man of principle is an indication of how desperate the situation has become.

Two major issues confronted the victors. The first concerned the judiciary. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, had been a prisoner of the regime since 3 November 2007, detained in his own house, which was sealed off by barbed-wire barricades with a complement of riot police permanently on guard outside. His landlines had been cut and cellphones were incapacitated by jamming devices. His colleagues and the lawyers defending him were subjected to similar treatment. In January, he wrote an open letter to Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown, Condoleezza Rice and the president of the European Parliament. The letter, which remains unanswered, explained the real reasons for Musharraf’s actions:

At the outset you may be wondering why I have used the words ‘claiming to be the head of state’. That is quite deliberate. General Musharraf’s constitutional term ended on 15 November 2007. His claim to a further term thereafter is the subject of active controversy before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It was while this claim was under adjudication before a bench of 11 learned judges of the Supreme Court that the general arrested a majority of those judges in addition to me on 3 November 2007. He thus himself subverted the judicial process which remains frozen at that point. Besides arresting the chief justice and judges (can there have been a greater outrage?) he also purported to suspend the constitution and to purge the entire judiciary (even the high courts) of all independent judges. Now only his hand-picked and compliant judges remain willing to ‘validate’ whatever he demands. And all this is also contrary to an express and earlier order passed by the Supreme Court on 3 November 2007.

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