The latest declaration of martial law in Pakistan appears to perpetuate the same cycle of military rule interspersed by short spasms of ineffectual and corrupt democracy, a cycle that Pakistanis are exasperated with. But this time the situation is more dire for the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million people. This time Islamic militants are better placed than ever to rush in and fill the vacuum.
The turmoil in Pakistan's historic Swat Valley was one reason President Pervez Musharraf cited for his imposition of martial law over the weekend. A recent rash of suicide bombings, beheadings and kidnappings of military personnel in the onetime tourist enclave has brought Pakistan closer to the brink in its faltering war against terrorism. Military forces have been battling an Islamist militia led by a radical cleric determined to establish Sharia law in the region. Yet the truth is, Swat's militancy has been festering for well over a year, with Musharraf's government unable to rein in the charismatic Mullah Fazlullah, who has spread his message over the airways in weekly radio addresses.
Like the situation in Islamabad's Red Mosque earlier this year, Musharraf's escalating unpopularity made it nearly impossible for the government to establish any control: Local leaders were loath to appear as if they were collaborating with Musharraf's military. The general's latest move will only escalate these tensions. "Pakistan is very religious, but it is not extremist," says Ahsan Iqbal, information secretary for exiled opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). "By making this a battle between secular values and extremism, Musharraf is pushing a large chunk of moderate but religious Pakistanis to side with the extremists, even if unwillingly."
Citing a recent opinion poll showing that Musharraf is significantly less popular than Osama bin Laden, Ahsan points out that 80% of Pakistan's population has strong views against Musharraf. "The challenge now is who gets to reap this anti-Musharraf sentiment. The extremists are delighted. They are getting a large chunk of this anti-Musharraf group for free."
Iqbal Haider, Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, speaking from under house arrest, questioned Musharraf's motives. "If he wants to stamp out terrorism in Pakistan, why is he arresting civil society leaders and lawyers instead of militants and religious fanatics? Why didn't he arrest Fazlullah when he first started preaching jihad? Today he has arrested hundreds of lawyers, but not a single militant, Taliban, al-Qaeda or religious fanatic. It doesn't make any sense. If you want to take the country away from the extremists, you don't do it by arresting the moderates."
Haider contends that Musharraf has proved himself the patron saint of religious fanatics. By limiting the choice in Pakistan to supporting the military or supporting the militants, Musharraf may well have driven millions of Pakistanis into the arms of the terrorists. The spread of anti-Americanism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism have been fostered by a U.S. policy of supporting Musharraf over the unpredictability of a true democratic process. Rather than forcing Musharraf to seek consensus, and thus enable a representative civilian government that would support him in his campaign against extremism, the U.S.'s tepid response to Musharraf's "coup" has only exacerbated his inability to effect change, critics argue. "The amazing part was the lukewarm reaction of Condoleezza Rice," fumed Haider. "What nonsense that was. They should have registered outright contempt. These extra-constitutional measures by General Musharraf are not in the interest of the war on terror, U.S. foreign policy or the protection of the Pakistani people. All these measures were tailor-made to suit Musharraf. He is drowning, and he is trying to take Pakistan with him."
At a press conference in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said three times that President Bush's first concern was "to protect America and protect American citizens by continuing to fight against terrorists." But in the view of retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood, Musharraf's move will only make things worse. "This emergency would in fact have the opposite effect to what Musharraf claims he wants to achieve," he says. "This war on terror requires the full support of the people of Pakistan, yet this measure has alienated the people to the point they are indifferent to his policies and turning against the military." Once the military loses the people's support, he contends, nothing will be able to keep the country together, and the military will be unable to pursue the war on terror. "In every way the morale of the troops, of the military, is affected. Over the last few months morale has folded like a tent. They are not trained for this insurgency, they don't have the equipment, and they don't have the support of the populace."
Musharraf "thinks his vision was right, and that he has failed merely by not being strict enough," Masood says. "He thinks that if he has 100% control over the lives of the people of Pakistan, he will be able to manipulate and control events in such a way that he can achieve both stability and economic progress. But by these measures he is only reinforcing failure, because this vision has not worked so far. By pursuing the same agenda with the same methods, but with more vigor, he is only going to cause more problems." >/p>
"He should have taken another tack," Masood asserts, "gone for elections and created an environment in Pakistan where rule of law is paramount so that the country would have been placed on much more stable footing."
At this point, however, it's too late for that.