In his remarks at the Law School today, Mr. Hamid Khan began with a brief history of Pakistan since the country became independent in 1947. He noted that there have been repeated episodes of military dictatorship. The first military regime devolved into civil war in 1971, leading to a split between West and East Pakistan into two independent states: Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mr. Khan also noted that many of Pakistan’s current problems with jihadist groups originated in the American government’s cooperation with General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. America sided with Zia to support the mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Many if not most of these fighters were not from Pakistan or Afghanistan at all, including Osama bin Laden, who came into the country from Saudi Arabia.
After the Soviet threat went away, Pakistan dropped off America’s radar screen until September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, at that point in time, another military dictator had recently seized power in Pakistan: Pervez Musharraf. Hamid Khan’s primary argument today was that President Bush has repeated many of America’s former mistakes in his relationship with Musharraf since 9/11. Once again, America is seen in Pakistan as supporting a military dictatorship in the face of strong democratic opposition.
As Mr. Khan noted, Musharraf has spent most of the last twelve months using his power to undermine democracy and the rule of law in the country, but the tide of public opinion has increasingly turned against him. The first major break occurred in March of 2007, when Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, began to question the military government’s extralegal detention of thousands of people, as well as financial corruption and misdoing among the military leadership. Musharraf responded by trying to intimidate Chaudhry into stepping down, but Chaudhry stood up to him.
This act of defiance mobilized a strong movement in Pakistan for rule of law reforms, spearheaded by the lawyers of the country. The lawyer’s movement achieved an historic victory in July of 2007 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Chaudhry and against Musharraf. Building on this momentum, they sought to put further pressure on Musharraf by bringing constitutional objections to his candidacy for the Presidency. Musharraf responded by suspending Pakistan’s Constitution and placing most of the country’s judges under house arrest unless they agreed to take an oath of loyalty to him. Shockingly, most of these judges remain under house arrest even now, almost four months after Musharraf suspended the Constitution.
Despite this, and despite his attempts to rig the country’s elections, Musharraf was roundly rejected by the people of Pakistan in the elections this month. Mr. Khan depicted this as a crucial juncture for the country, a test of whether the democratic process would be respected. But he expressed deep cynicism about the acts of the Bush Administration, which has urged the victorious political parties to work with Musharraf in forming a government. From Mr. Khan’s perspective, it is time for Musharraf to go.
There are strong reasons to agree with that, and there are especially strong reasons to be critical of the way that the Bush Administration has treated Musharraf with kid gloves. Not only is the President attempting to deny the clear results of the recent elections, but he has consistently refused to object to Musharraf’s subversion of the rule of law over the past year. This is especially troubling coming from a President who has paid such lip service to America’s role in promoting democracy around the world. President Bush seems oblivious to the fact that American support for military dictatorships breeds deep resentment against the United States, and that jihadist and terrorist groups feed on that resentment. Thus, support for Musharraf in the long term could prove to be a grave mistake.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. The recent election demonstrated dramatically that Pakistan’s people are ready for a change (sound familiar?). They rejected the military regime and voted in large numbers for the most moderate, democratic choices that were available. If these parties can hold together, and get rid of Musharraf’s stranglehold on the government, there is a window of opportunity.
Getting rid of Musharraf is only step one, however. Mr. Khan did not go into any specifics about what a post-Musharraf government will look like, and the two parties that will form a coalition government have many disagreements. Musharraf hasn’t only been bad for the rule of law, but he has also devoted the government’s resources to enriching his military cronies, rather than to making the much-needed educational and economic reforms to create real opportunities for Pakistan’s people.
If the new government can withstand the test of holding together to get rid of Musharraf, it will face the even tougher challenge of passing real reforms that benefit the country as a whole, rather than any favored constituencies. Hopefully, the American government will realize that our narrow anti-terror focus should be broadened, and we will divert some of our aid to the task of helping the new government move the country forward.
Posted by Thane Rehn