States of emergency
General Musharraf’s crackdown on ‘uncertainty’ in Pakistan is another product of the West’s unravelling ‘war on terror’.
We are unlikely to get to grips with the political crisis in Pakistan by focusing, as much of the international media is, on the apparent stand-off between General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, and Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister. Despite the increasingly shrill rhetoric there is not really much ground between these two, who have previously worked together for what one leading Pakistani commentator scathingly refers to as a ‘military-liberal coalition’. And more importantly, there are far wider forces at work.
Musharraf has been widely condemned for declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan. But it would be fair to say that there is an undeclared state of emergency across the region, and it is one largely created in the West. It is a product of the directionless ‘war on terror’ – a war that was declared, as has often been pointed out, against an abstract noun, but which has had some very concrete and disastrous results.
The process of things spinning out of control began in Afghanistan after 9/11, when the USA and NATO launched a war to try to reassert a sense of authority in the world and ended up creating further chaos. The emergency soon moved on to Iraq, as the US-UK invasion of 2003 replaced a state with a vacuum. Now it has spread again, to Pakistan.
President Musharraf is entirely a creature of the ‘war on terror’, dependent for his survival on outside support from the West. His government, despite its claims to have won a discredited election, enjoys little real legitimacy within Pakistan. The president’s refusal to follow the rules and resign as head of the army reflects the reality that, whatever the constitution says, Pakistan remains a state based on military power rather than popular mandate. Its militarised economy has been boosted by massive US aid since 9/11, in contrast to the thriving market economy of its Indian neighbour.
In political terms too, Musharraf relies upon the backing of the US government and to a lesser extent its UK ally (the old colonial power). That support has not yet been withdrawn despite the state of emergency. In return, Musharraf has proved willing to do his bit in the West’s war on terror – publicly turning against the Taliban and other Islamic militants that Pakistan helped to create in the first place, and withdrawing active support from the Islamic forces fighting India in the disputed Kashmir region.
But being a local stooge for an unpopular and incoherent international war is no basis for stable government. Lacking in legitimacy and unable to deliver what the people of Pakistan need, Musharraf’s regime declared a state of emergency as a desperate show of strength but has only succeeded in exposing its weakness. He has imposed the sort of repressive measures associated with military dictatorship, not to counter any mass opposition movement or put down an armed uprising, but only to cope with some terror attacks and silence criticism from judges and lawyers.
The speech in which Musharraf declared the emergency gave away the sense of things slipping beyond his control or comprehension. As with President Bush, it seemed that he was lashing out at an enemy without a face or a name. Thus Musharraf declared that ‘hurdles are being created’, that ‘a chaos is being created’, and that ‘the entire nation is a victim of uncertainty’. For Bush’s war on terror, read Musharraf’s crackdown on uncertainty.
But things are not as straightforward for dictators today as they were during the Cold War years, when the Western powers were certain of their anti-Communist cause and backed brutal stooge regimes. Back then, Pakistan’s generals were able to ignore international appeals and get away with hanging Bhutto’s father, the deposed premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1979. Today it appears more that, by declaring the state of emergency and shutting Bhutto in her house in face of international opposition, Musharraf has hanged himself.
Yet despite the impression given by sections of the international media, his government is not yet faced with a mass movement for democracy. Instead there have been growing protests among Pakistan’s relatively small professional middle classes, who are feeling the squeeze in the national crisis. Where many of the Iraqi middle classes chose simply to leave for America and the West, the Pakistani equivalents have more of a stake in the country and are demanding reform and stability.
Thus the regime’s crackdown has largely been aimed at disaffected judges, lawyers and media professionals, leaving the mass of Pakistanis unmoved. This has certainly endeared the protesters to the liberal political-media classes in Britain, who see them as their own sort. When the head of Liberty, the British civil liberties lobby group, appeared on the BBC Radio 4 discussion programme Any Questions? alongside former New Labour home secretary David Blunkett, she seemed particularly outraged that Musharraf had dared to interfere with legal professionals and declared that, whatever differences she might have had with Blunkett, at least he had never locked her up. These people can even turn a coup in Pakistan into something that’s all about them.
Meanwhile, a leading New Labour columnist has called on prime minister Gordon Brown to focus his foreign policy away from Iran and towards Pakistan, where Britain could apparently make a difference. She argued that the government had made a ‘disastrous mistake’ by embracing ‘the pro-Western dictator’. Instead, the ‘democratic campaigners – Benazir Bhutto, the exiled Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Iftikhar Muhummad Chaudhry (the deposed chief justice) and his rebel lawyers and judges – should be Labour’s allies from now on’ (1). Some students of Pakistan’s political history might have a few serious questions to ask about the ‘democratic’ credentials of the likes of Bhutto and Sharif. It is little wonder that ‘rebel lawyers and judges’ should become pin-ups for a New Labour elite that has long put its faith more in the legal process than the court of public opinion (although the lawyer-dominated British left has rarely matched the passion of the Pakistani attorneys seen battling riot cops in their business suits last week). How much of a challenge the ‘democratic campaigners’ pose to the military state, however, remains to be seen.
The problem is that both sides in the Musharraf-Bhutto stand-off are effectively Western proxies: the general is a hired soldier in the West’s war on terror, the politician a softer front for the West’s reform campaign. Both seem strangely detached from the mass of Pakistan’s 155million people. As the debate rages over here about how to resolve the problems of the political system over there, most observers seem to have missed the fact that a large proportion of the Pakistani population is already so alienated from that system that it has deserted the establishment’s side in the war. Neither Musharraf nor his opponents will be able to stabilise the country.
Flailing around in isolation, losing his grip – General Musharraf’s crisis of authority looks rather like a Pakistani version of that now afflicting his Western allies in the region. The trouble in Pakistan is only the latest stage in the unravelling of American and British foreign policy through the war on terror. It was striking in this context that President Bush had to break off from crisis talks with the prime minister of Turkey, over his Turkish ally’s threat to defy him and invade Iraq, in order to lay down the law on elections to his beleaguered ally in Pakistan.
However the Pakistan crisis is finally resolved, there seems no end in sight to that wider state of emergency.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.
Brendan O’Neill interpreted an India/Pakistan stand-off over Kashmir as an effect of the West’s ‘war on terrorism’. He urged a stop to the fantasy war over Iran. James Heartfield said General Pervez Musharraf was Mau-Mauing the US flak-catcher. Dolan Cummings got the sense that Musharraf was caught up in someone else’s war. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.
(1) Britain must accept its role in the world is as a minor player, Guardian, 12 November 2007
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