5 January 2008

Elections will not save Pakistan

By Liam Carroll

You have to feel sorry for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan for being the undeserving victims of huge geopolitical forces that are way beyond their control. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, used to brag that he had brought down the Soviet Union by hatching the plan to "bleed Moscow in the soil of Afghanistan" way back in 1979. The 'freedom fighters' that the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani military brought to Afghanistan for the so called anti-Soviet Jihad included Osama bin Laden and thousands of others who formed the group al Qaeda that is linked to the current number one suspect for the murder of Benazir Bhutto, Baitullah Mehsud.

One could argue about the merits or otherwise of assembling militants from across the Muslim world to fight in Afghanistan, however one would be hard pressed to find any virtue in its legacy. One cannot avoid noticing the terrible ironies as the US attempts to pressure the Pakistani military to seek and destroy the militants that they had both collaborated to bring to Afghanistan in the first place.

Leaving the historical context aside though, people are of course asking what are the options for helping Pakistan avoid further destabilisation. One option, and the most likely one to be adopted by the US led coalition forces, would be more of the same. This runs along the line of pressuring the Pakistani military to assert their control over the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, where the US believe al Qaeda and the Taleban are taking refuge.

The Pakistani military are, quite rightly, reluctant to engage in a full scale civil war with their fellow countrymen, many of whom have done nothing worse than to be overrun by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s 'freedom fighters' from the previous US campaign.

Secondly, while casualties are already in their thousands (soldiers and civilians) any escalation by the army has been matched by an increasingly effective and sophisticated bombing campaign by militants in the heartland of Pakistan, greatly adding to the countries instability.

Thirdly, the increasing violence has gone hand in hand with a growing radicalisation of the tribal area as well as of many young students up and down the country. Being the largest landowners, property developers and industrialists in the country, the military is of course quite sensitive to the risk of further instability and will thus probably maintain a show of counterinsurgency without serious escalation.

The overwhelming call to respond to the recent attacks then has been to follow through with the 'democratic process.' While the response seems appropriate, an awareness of the scale of the challenge seems woefully lacking.

Starting with the obvious, what sort of democratic party selects their leader by bloodline, as the Pakistan's People's Party have just done (selecting Benazir's 19 year student son)? By all accounts the PPP is the most progressive party as well. Nawaz Sharif's and President Musharraf's parties are essentially representatives of elite cadres with very little popular support, and given the history of vote rigging in the country even their low poll ratings are suspect.

More fundamentally of course, endemic corruption aside, there is a consensus that the military runs the government and will surely continue to do so for some time into the future. Any civilian contribution to government has always been just that, a contribution.

Also fairly fundamentally, the Supreme Court Chief Justice remains under arrest for trying to uphold the constitution and the lawyers who complained are all in jail

The alternative approach would be to call for a cease-fire and wholesale reform of the military government. There are some good reasons why this might help.

A number of analysts have pointed out that al Qaeda is failing to win support for its extreme brand of militancy anywhere across the Muslim world. In poll after poll, whether in Lebanon, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Indonesia, al Qaeda is recorded as being feared and disliked. Indeed, political scientist and pollster Shibley Telhami says "many people would like bin Laden to hurt America, but they do not want bin Laden to rule their children."

Al Qaeda appears to thrive on war and anti-Americanism, but in peace-time they have nothing to offer and can accumulate no popular support. Only in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have they been able to radicalise the local population, mostly on the back of US/NATO excessive use of force. Many people appear to have pinned their hopes on the electoral process to stabilise Pakistan – the real problem however is the war, but very few people in this country are saying so, something that only seems to happen when they have the benefit of hindsight.