Home and away: The rebuffing of Nawaz Sharif has only made Pakistan more unstableThe Economist: Sep 13th 2007 | LARKANA, MATTA AND RAWALPINDI
NAWAZ SHARIF, a former prime minister of Pakistan, landed in Rawalpindi on September 10th with his head bowed in prayer and his supporters erupting around him. He was back from a seven-year exile to challenge Pervez Musharraf, an army coupster who had toppled and imprisoned him. “Go, Musharraf! Go!” screamed his retinue as Mr Sharif's plane rumbled to a halt. But four hours later it was Mr Sharif who was on the move. In the airport's VIP arrivals lounge he was charged with corruption, arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia.
It was almost certainly what he had expected. During the flight, Mr Sharif made many bold promises: to wage a “final battle” against military dictatorship, bring “undiluted democracy” to Pakistan, and so forth. He is not the first Pakistani politician to have promised these things. Indeed, as a political drama, his homecoming was squarely within Pakistani tradition. It was chaotic. It was cacophonous. And its conclusion, as became gradually apparent, had been scripted by soldiers and spies, rulers of Pakistan for most of its history.
The play began last month when Pakistan's Supreme Court, in a new-found spirit of judicial independence, ruled that Mr Sharif had an “inalienable right” to return home. With presidential and parliamentary elections looming, he vowed to do so. As far as anyone could tell—for opinion polls are rare and often unreliable in Pakistan—his popularity surged. Many Pakistanis, battered by persistent inflation and authoritarian government, have had enough of General Musharraf.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of Mr Sharif's main rival, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and another exiled prime minister, are declining. She has chosen not to confront General Musharraf but to try to share power with him. In recent months, his intelligence chiefs have been negotiating with her to make this happen. By associating with a military dictator, Ms Bhutto, whose party is Pakistan's most liberal and popular, was bound to lose credibility. Nonetheless, she has gambled that a deal would be worth it.
Her terms are these: she wants a passage home unencumbered by corruption charges relating to her two terms in office. She wants General Musharraf to hand in his army papers and revoke a law that restricts prime ministers to two terms. She also wants the general to give up his current presidential power to sack the prime minister. In return, she is prepared to support his bid for presidential re-election. Whether the constitution allows this is, at best, open to question. Ms Bhutto has therefore been leaching credibility, and still she has no deal.
Undaunted, in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, Ms Bhutto's ancestral seat in southern Sindh province, workers are rushing to finish a renovation of the 130-foot white Mughal-style mausoleum that bears testimony to the tragic fortunes, and scornful pride, of Pakistan's leading political dynasty. It holds the bones of Ms Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister hanged by his successor, and also of her two brothers, Murtaza and Shah Nawaz. They, too, died violently: Shah Nawaz poisoned in a Bhutto pad in the south of France, Murtaza killed in a shoot-out in Karachi in 1996, during Ms Bhutto's last government. Supporters of Ms Bhutto, including America and Britain, rightly see her as a Western-educated (Harvard and Oxford) liberal intellectual. But this is not the only baggage she comes with.
By beating Ms Bhutto home, Mr Sharif had hoped to capitalise on his more obviously heroic stand. Indeed, this looked likely until September 8th, when Saudi Arabia's chief of intelligence, Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, showed up in Islamabad and warned Mr Sharif to stay away. By so doing, said Mr Aziz, he would honour a promise he had made to the Saudi royals in 2000. In return for their help in springing Mr Sharif from jail, where he was serving a life sentence for treason and hijacking, he had vowed to quit Pakistan for a decade. The Supreme Court's ruling last month overrode this agreement; but no matter to Mr Aziz.
The flight back
It was a gloomy-looking Mr Sharif who turned up at London's Heathrow airport on September 9th to catch an overnight flight. A tearful scene ensued. At the departure gate, Mr Sharif ordered his brother and closest ally, Shahbaz Sharif, to stay put. “At the eleventh hour!” lamented Shahbaz, who last week was charged with multiple murders relating to his time as chief minister of Punjab.
On the plane was another surprise. No sooner had Mr Sharif boarded than a Pakistani journalist collapsed in the aisle. A doctor was called and diagnosed a heart attack. But Pakistani observers exchanged dark glances. The spies of General Musharraf's Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI), they suggested, are an ingenious lot.
It was a surprise when the plane took off. Over the next eight hours, Mr Sharif received foreign journalists at his first class seat. Had they fancied wandering into the cockpit, they could have done. The usual in-flight rules were discarded. The aircrew seemed resigned to chaos. And the purser was for the PPP.
On the ground in Pakistan, every leader of Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party (PML-N) was being arrested. Some 1,000-4,000 party activists were also allegedly rounded up. The roads around Islamabad airport were blocked with road-making machinery. The few PML-N supporters who breached this defence, after Mr Sharif's incoming plane was sighted, were bludgeoned with tear-gas cannisters and beaten by riot police.
Inside the airport, paramilitary police encircled the plane and a nervous immigration official boarded it. With trembling hands he clutched a crumpled brown paper bag containing an immigration stamp. His task was to admit Mr Sharif to Pakistan—so honouring his “inalienable right”. Wise to the ruse, Mr Sharif and his retinue refused to hand over his passport. But shortly after disembarking he was charged with involvement in an alleged $20m money-laundering scam and led away, his passport apparently unstamped.
Pakistan, a place of 160m people and one of Asia's fastest-growing economies, should not be a banana republic. Yet, in its current crisis, that is increasingly how it appears. By ignoring the Supreme Court, General Musharraf has in effect declared a state of emergency. Were he now to offer Ms Bhutto a deal on her terms, almost incredible as this would be, she might feel compelled to decline. If the elections go ahead, the opposition parties may boycott them. They include the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of Islamist parties previously allied with the general, as well as the PML-N and PPP.
And Pakistan faces another crisis, of security. It has a nationalist insurgency in its vast western province of Baluchistan, a Taliban insurgency in its rugged north-west and sporadic al-Qaeda-style suicide-blasts in every main city. Official figures count around 250 suicide bombers, including some who were foiled by security forces, in the past five years. The most recent, in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on September 11th, killed 18 people.
The tempo of the attacks increased in July, when the army stormed a radical mosque in the middle of Islamabad called Lal Masjid. Within a stroll of Pakistan's Supreme Court and Parliament building, over a hundred people were killed in the battle that ensued. The mosque's preachers, two brothers, one of whom was killed, had ties to militant groups including al-Qaeda. Yet the terrorism is also the inevitable outcome of the fact that much of north-western Pakistan, especially the semi-autonomous Pushtun tribal region, has been taken over by the Taliban.
General Musharraf's efforts to combat these fanatics, who include many of Afghanistan's former rulers, have been disastrous. Before the Lal Masjid battle, the army had around 80,000 troops in and around the tribal areas, along the border with Afghanistan. They were first dispatched there shortly after America invaded Afghanistan in 2001. In on-off campaigning, over 800 Pakistani soldiers had been killed by these militants. Since Lal Masjid, General Musharraf has dispatched another two divisions to the region, and another 250 soldiers have been killed.
A man on a white horse
In Swat, a fertile valley adjoining the tribal areas, a brigade of these reinforcements arrived last month. Their task is daunting. Swat is the area of Mullah Fazalullah, a cleric who delivers Taliban edicts through a megaphone while mounted on a white horse. Mr Fazalullah, whose father-in-law incited thousands of local youths to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, has called for suicide blasts to avenge the “martyrs” of Lal Masjid. He has not been disappointed. As they advanced into Swat, the brigade was greeted by two suicide-blasts and a road-side bomb; 16 soldiers were killed.
Of course, Mr Fazalullah has gone to ground. And the local administration will not help the army unearth him. Javed Ali Shah, its senior official, said: “There will be no military operation in Swat.” The army is reported to be deeply unhappy, and no wonder. Last week 270 soldiers, including a dozen officers, were taken hostage by a much smaller force of Taliban militants in the tribal agency of South Waziristan. They were captured without a shot being fired. “They are demoralised, it's a serious concern,” says an army pundit, former General Talat Masood.
It would hardly be surprising if Osama bin Laden was in north-west Pakistan. American officials have often suggested this, though they seem unable to prove it. As for Pakistan, it prefers not to discuss the great sheikh's possible whereabouts. The MMA, General Musharraf's former ally, runs the government in NWFP. Like Mr bin Laden, many of its leaders won glory during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, which was run from Pakistan.
Moreover, some senior army officers may share their sympathies. The then army spokesman, Major-General Shaukat Sultan, said last year that if Mr bin Laden was in Pakistan he was free to live a “peaceful life”, provided he kept out of trouble.
That may be quite a mild view in Pakistan. According to a poll released on September 11th, Mr bin Laden is more popular than General Musharraf. The poll found that 46% of Pakistanis approve of al-Qaeda's chief, against 38% for their president. In addition, 66% of respondents said that America was fighting a war on terror in order to attack Islam.
Pakistan is bigoted and becoming more so. Yet the poll should be read cautiously. Radical opinions are casually expressed in Pakistan, by members of the English-speaking elite as well as the Urdu-speaking masses. But even with Machiavellian help from the intelligence agency, the MMA won only 11% of the vote in 2002. In the coming election, if they participate, they may do better. Nonetheless, except for the stringent Pushtuns, most Pakistanis are moderate.
Last week in Sehwan, a town in central Sindh, half a million Sufi pilgrims gave a demonstration of this fact. They are followers, like most Pakistanis, of the heterodox Barelvi school of Sunni Islam. And so they whirled, chanted prayers, blew kisses and smoked massive quantities of dope to celebrate the 755th anniversary of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi saint. “We are the anti-Taliban,” claimed Ahmed Bhutto (no relation), in a room thick with the scent of incense and rose petals. “We stand for love, tolerance and the great infinity.”
If only the mortal world of international relations were so far-sighted. But it is not. That is why, even as General Musharraf's popularity plummets, America is stoutly backing him. The general's campaign in north-western Pakistan may be disastrous, but America has no better idea of how to quell the mayhem there. Indeed the campaign is, more or less, according to an American design. General Musharraf invaded the tribal areas at America's urging. America is closely involved in prosecuting the campaign, especially at an intelligence level. After all, it is paying for it. In the past five years, America has swollen General Musharraf's coffers with an estimated $10 billion.
Even for a profligate superpower, that is a considerable stake, and America's recently expressed dissatisfaction with General Musharraf should be measured against it. In short, America wants both democracy for Pakistan and General Musharraf. This is why it is urging the general to co-operate with Ms Bhutto. But if a democratic general turns out to be as self-contradictory as most Pakistanis think (and they should know), America would prefer to keep the general. Mr Sharif's summary ejection probably reflects this. It is hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia would have so grossly intruded into Pakistani affairs without America's approval, at least.
However will it end? In the long run, if history is a guide, the institutional damage that General Musharraf is wreaking will make Pakistan even more unstable. Never forget, for Pakistanis do not, that he is the country's fourth American-backed military ruler. At best, his rule will have delayed the onset of a serious effort to build the sustainable democracy that most Pakistanis crave. At worst, it will have made that task unachievable.
One indication of this, the most alarming aspect of the current political crisis, is that no Pakistani leader seems to be genuinely popular. Even if General Musharraf had not locked up the PML-N's leaders, it is doubtful they could have produced much of a multitude to greet Mr Sharif. Ms Bhutto, who said she would announce the date of her return on September 14th, might fare better. But she would be most unlikely to draw the adoring hundreds of thousands who welcomed her after her last return from exile, in 1986.
For Pakistan's other crisis, Islamist-stoked insecurity, there will be no ready solution. Pakistani Pushtuns may stay on the warpath as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan. They always have before. And if Islamist militancy is to be a fixture in Pakistan, America should worry about where Pakistani allegiances may be heading.
General Musharraf will not worry about this. He wants to cling to power, and he has two options. First, he can seal a deal with Ms Bhutto. So long as there is no popular backlash against Mr Sharif's ejection, especially by the country's lawyers, who provoked mass protests against General Musharraf earlier this year, she may agree to this—provided the general sheds his uniform by early next year at the latest.
He is reluctant to do so. There is a notion, dear to America, that General Musharraf could be a strong civilian president, overseeing the prime minister and the army. But there is no history to support this belief. The army, and it alone, is General Musharraf's constituency and the source of his power. By stripping himself of its uniform he reasonably fears that he would be an emperor without clothes.
His alternative is to go it alone. He already has a simple majority in Parliament, which is sufficient for a presidential re-election. Without the PPP, he will not have the two-thirds majority necessary to make constitutional changes. In effect, that means that if his re-election were challenged on legal grounds—as it surely would be—General Musharraf would be at the mercy of the Supreme Court.
On recent form, the judges might rule against him. If so, General Musharraf would probably then declare martial law. This would allow him to re-run the events that followed his 1999 coup: he would gut the Supreme Court of dissidents, ask the remaining sycophants to rule on the legality of his suspension of democracy, then hold elections. So long as a fair portion of the opposition participated in these, they would probably pass muster with America. But how would Pakistanis respond?
The name of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, that Sufi saint, is linked in Pakistan with both unshakeable tolerance and unrestrainable agitation. A famous Urdu poem, “The complete intoxication of Qalandar”, explores this duality. But in real life, alas, there can be no such co-existence.