By Stephen Brown
Two days after General David Petraeus, chief of US Central Command, dismissed fears of an imminent military coup, Pakistan’s defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, was prevented Thursday evening by border officials from leaving the country to visit China. According to one report, there are 248 such names on the border authorities’ list, including other high-ranking government members, of Pakistanis now denied exit rights.
The ostensible reason for Mukhtar’s detainment was that he, and other ministers of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), is facing corruption charges and a possible jail term. Last Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court struck down the amnesty, called the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which protected them and 8,000 other bureaucrats from prosecution, reviving old charges. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the 2007 NRO amnesty that paved the way for Zardari’s murdered wife and then PPP leader, Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling, several ministers are now expected to resign, endangering the survival of the Zardari civilian government. Opposition parties are also calling for Zardari himself to step down, but he has presidential immunity from prosecution. The Supreme Court’s NRO ruling, though, is expected to leave Pakistan’s president open to legal proceedings regarding his eligibility as a candidate in last year’s election.
Columnist and former Pakistani activist Tarek Fatah writes that “religious right–wing backers of the Taliban and al Qaeda” in Pakistan’s military-industrial complex are behind this destruction of the Zardari government by legal means.
“Working from within the government, military intelligence was able to coax a junior minister to release a list of supposedly corrupt politicians and public officials in the country,” wrote Fatah. “Leading them was Mr. Zardari himself – notwithstanding the fact that before he was elected president, he had been imprisoned for more than a decade by the military without a single conviction.”
Zardari came to office a year ago last August, taking over from disgraced military ruler Pervez Musharraf who resigned under threat of impeachment. Musharraf had come to power after staging the last military coup against a civilian president in 1999. Pakistan has been ruled by military leaders for about half of its 62 year history, so military takeovers are almost a part of the political fabric.
Army rule usually lasts about a decade before a civilian government is re-established which lasts an almost equal length of time. The current military threat to civilian rule is somewhat unusual, as Zardari has been in office only a year and four months.
A main reason for the military coups, though, is that the civilian politicians’ corruption and incompetence eventually become too ruinous for the country.
What is also unusual is the military’s current method for re-establishing itself in power. In the past, tanks would simply roll up to the president’s residence and eject him from office by force. The military’s strategy this time, it appears, is to let the courts take down the government, which gives the destruction of civilian rule a semblance of legality that would evoke less criticism from the western democracies. In the resulting political turmoil, the army could then seize power, appearing as a force of stability and law and order.
One reason for the military’s dissatisfaction with the Zardari government is that the war against Islamic extremists in Pakistan is not popular in some sections of the army, bureaucracy and Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, the ISI. According to a story in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, Islamic radicals “have permeated the state apparatus and society to such an extent that they are now an integral part of them.” This made Zardari’s going to war against the Taliban a risky venture, since a backlash that could paralyse the government could ensue. The ISI is also unhappy that Zardari has been trying to root out the Islamist elements in its midst.
Some military people also regard the Taliban as a strategic asset to be used in any future war with India and as well as for giving Pakistan strategic depth in Afghanistan. The Taliban are regarded as excellent irregular fighters. The army already used them in the 1947 war against India when, under the leadership of Pakistani officers, they almost conquered Kashmir.
Zardari’s desire to make peace with India has also made him enemies in the military. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has fought three major wars with India. Some in the military regard this showdown as the reason for the army’s existence and do not want it to end. To his credit, one observer states Zardari wants peaceful relations with all neighboring countries, since he knows economic growth in Pakistan is not possible without “peaceful borders.”
Fatah writes that the last straw for the military in its decision to go after the Zardari government was when the US Congress passed the Kerry-Lugar bill last September that would see billions of dollars in aid flow to Pakistan. The problem was the generals would not be able to get their hands on it, like it did in the past under Musharraf, as the money is to go through civilian channels. Fatah describes what was at stake for the generals if they let the US Congress’s decision to bypass them go unchallenged: “If they do nothing, they lose their veto power over government policymaking, domestic as well as foreign.”
What the generals did do, according to Fatah, was to get the pro-Taliban media to launch a frenzied campaign, “claiming that Mr. Zardari had sold out to the Americans and the Indians.” And probably not coincidentally, American diplomats are now experiencing official harassment.
The fall of President Zardari would pose a very serious problem for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Zardari recognised the danger the Islamic radicals pose and has vigorously pursued their destruction in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A change in the Pakistani government may very well see a change in that policy, which would constitute not only a serious setback but a defeat in the war against militant Islam.