In the wake of Lal Masjid

How will Pakistani politics develop in the wake of Lal Masjid?

The first thing to be said is that it is quite remarkable to see President General Musharraf’s government still standing. Months of protests by lawyers against his arbitrary dismissal of Iftikhar Chaudhry culminated, last week, in a Supreme Court order revoking Musharraf’s decree and reinstating the now-famous Chief Justice. This blow to Musharraf’s credibility came hard on the heels of the Lal Masjid crisis, which Musharraf had been hoping would shore up his legitimacy in the lead up to elections that are scheduled for later this year. There had been speculation that Musharraf would use Lal Masjid to argue for the imposition of emergency rule and perhaps even postpone elections if necessary. Instead, the Supreme Court ruling seemed to nullify this potential boost to Musharraf’s regime, as the latter had no choice but to accept the verdict without so much as a “But wait, I’m a General!”

As expected, the Islamist backlash in the wake of the Lal Masjid crisis has been bloody. Immediately after the siege of the mosque ended, the Taliban-dominated Waziristan province tore up the peace agreement with the Pakistani government that had been in place since September last year. Back then, the Pakistani military had been forced to withdraw and hand over administration to local tribal leaders with ties to the Taliban. This truce now lay in tatters, and attacks on Pakistani forces escalated dramatically, as one suicide bombing after another rocked the area.

In the last ten days alone, i.e. since the bloody finale of the Lal Masjid crisis on July 14, more than 200 people, mostly Pakistani security personnel, have died, bringing the total for the month of July to well above 300. (In addition, many have died in the south and in Balochistan as a result of disastrous flooding following heavy rains that have submerged more than a hundred villages, but that story rarely makes the international press.)

As expected, the U.S. has upped the ante, first by backing Musharraf’s crackdown on Lal Masjid, and then coming up with a plan for delivering $750 million over the next five years for “economic development” in the tribal areas (the carrot), plus $300 million a year for the Pakistani military’s frontier operations (the stick).

But the developments in Waziristan have pushed U.S. saber-rattling over the edge.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow recently “calmed” fears of a U.S. invasion of Pakistan with these words of “assurance”: “I think there has been this notion afoot, or at least an attempt or an inclination, somehow we’re going to invade Pakistan.” But he went on to say: “We always maintain the option of striking actionable targets, but we also realise that Pakistan is a sovereign government and a very important player in the war on terror.”

According to Dawn, on July 23, General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered U.S. air support and “supporting fires” for Pakistani operations against al-Qaeda.

And today’s New York Times carries an op-ed piece by two former U.S. National Security Council staffers calling for using the CIA to carry out covert operations within Pakistan! They tell us that back in 2005, U.S. scrapped its plans to go after Ayman al-Zawahiri because “The whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan,” according an intelligence official.

Such belligerent rhetoric is either reflective of the American establishment’s unthinking stupidity, or a cyncially calculated deployment of verbal threats designed to further destablize Pakistan and thereby justify U.S. military action there. This saber-rattling has only rattled the Islamist opposition groups even further, giving a fillip to the growing anger against Musharraf’s complicity with the U.S. “war on terror.”

Meanwhile, exiled Pakistani “opposition” leader Benazir Bhutto might turn out to be the democratic fig-leaf with which the U.S. and Britain dress up Musharraf’s regime. Plans for a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Musharraf’s regime, backed by the U.S. and U.K., have temporarily stalled, according to an article in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn. But such an agreement could yet emerge (days after this post was originally written, Musharraf met with Benazir–the prospect of a power-sharing arrangement has become even more likely), ironically bringing the Bhutto name back in line with the very military that executed Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1979, squashing Pakistan’s brief attempt at democratic governance.

It appears, though, that Benazir’s Bhutto’s opportunistic alliance with Musharraf might be the only way for her to return to power. An excellent article by M. K. Bhadrakumar points out that her rival, Nawaz Sharif, who is also in exile, is likely to be able to garner a lot more support on the ground in Pakistan. One of the reasons for this is that Bhutto came out in support not only of Musharraf’s Lal Masjid crackdown, but also his earlier crackdown on the judiciary and the media; meanwhile, the conservative Sharif and his Islamist supporters have positioned themselves as the real opposition.

It is a matter of time before Sharif will become the leader of a reinstated Pakistan Muslim League (PML) once the time-servers of the PML who gathered around Musharraf begin to scatter.

Sharif is straining to return to Pakistan. Unlike Bhutto, he has no cases pending against him in the Pakistani courts. Therefore, in a fair election, Bhutto would still face an uphill struggle to become prime minister again. The alliance of Punjabi right-wing politicians and the militant clergy would definitely be more than a match….

Now that the right-wing Islamist groups are on the ascendancy, and the military’s hold on the country seems suddenly weak and vulnerable, it seems likely that the elections, if they do take place, will bolster the Islamists:

The problem is evidently not a straightforward one of the military’s intrusive role in Pakistan’s national life. It is not as if liberal democracy would ensue once the military withdrew into the barracks, and which would save the country from extremism. As a Pakistani scholar put it, “Islamic parties have learned that they can use the modern notions of elections and democracy as instruments for advancing their Islamic ideological agenda. They are not committed to democracy and constitutionalism as a doctrine for governance and societal organization. Their commitment to democracy is purely instrumental.”

What will be the impact of these developments on the rest of the subcontinent? That will have to wait for another post. One thing is for sure: The instability unleashed by the U.S. war on terror is gradually creeping east, and threatens to engulf the entire subcontinent in the months and years to come.