Pakistan's General Anarchy
New York Times, November 8, 2007
THE power grab last weekend by Pakistan 's president, Pervez Musharraf , cleverly timed to stall the Western reaction for 48 hours, was essentially a coup against himself. Faced with increasing demands to give up his position as military chief and confront the complexities of civilian rule, General Musharraf decided to topple President Musharraf.
In an interview a couple of months ago, General Musharraf said that his army uniform was his second skin: "How can I possibly take it off?" His comment was dismissed at the time as old-school dictator-talk.
But a few weeks ago he submitted an affidavit in Pakistan's Supreme Court stating that if his election as president was not validated, he'd continue to work as the army chief — indefinitely. As the Supreme Court contemplated this ultimatum, General Musharraf got the jitters and decided to lock up most of the court's judges, and also to pull the plug on every independent news source in the country.
To understand the difference between the general and the president, one only has to look at the lists of people detained and released on the night of the coup. The first people to be arrested after the imposition of emergency were not the leaders of Pakistani Taliban , nor their sympathizers in Islamabad. There was no crackdown on sleeper cells that have orchestrated a wave of suicide bombings across Pakistan.
The people he has arrested in the last few days besides judges and lawyers have included peace activists, teachers, artists — basically the kind of people who have done more than anybody else to push ahead his avowed agenda of moving Pakistan away from religious militancy.
On the night he declared the emergency, General Musharraf released 28 Taliban prisoners; according to news reports, one was serving a sentence of 24 years for transporting two suicide bombers' jackets, the only fashion accessory allowed in Pakistan's Taliban-controlled areas. These are the kind of people who on their off days like to burn down video stores and harass barbers for giving shaves and head massages.
In what can be seen only as a reciprocal gesture, the Taliban released a group of army soldiers it had held hostage — according to the BBC, each soldier was given 500 rupees for good behavior.
Why do General Musharraf and his army feel a sense of kinship with the very people they are supposed to be fighting against? Why are he and his army scared of liberal lawyers and teachers but happy to deal with Islamist Pashtuns in the tribal areas?
The reasons can be traced back to the 1980s, when another military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, launched a broad campaign to Islamicize Pakistani society and the armed forces in particular. Back then, I was a cadet at Pakistan's Air Force Academy , where I witnessed, along with hundreds of other aghast cadets, a remarkable scene in which a new recruit, out of religious conviction, refused to shave his beard. (Like most military training institutes in the world, the academy's first right of passage was to turn the civilian recruits into clean-shaven jarheads.)
The issue was eventually referred to the Army high command in Islamabad, and as a result procedures for training institutes were amended — the boy was allowed to keep his beard and wear his uniform. The academy barber never recovered from the shock.
Within months there were other changes: evenings socializing to music and mocktails were replaced by Koran study sessions. Buses were provided for cadets who wanted to attend civilian religious congregations. Within months, our rather depressing but secular academy was turned into a zealous, thriving madrassa where missing your daily prayers was a crime far worse than missing the morning drill.
It is this crop of military officers that now runs the country. General Musharraf heads this army, and is very reluctant to let go.
For those who have never had to live under his regime, the general/president can come across as a rakish, daredevil figure. His résumé is impressive: here's a man who can manage the frontline of the Western world's war on terrorism, get rid of prime ministers at will, force his political opponents into exile and still find the time to write an autobiography. But ask the lawyers, judges, arts teachers and students behind bars about him, and one will find out he is your garden-variety dictator who, after having spent eight years in power, is asking why can't he continue for another eight.
General Musharraf's bond with his troops is not just ideological. Under his command Pakistan's armed forces have become a hugely profitable empire. It's the nation's pre-eminent real estate dealer, it dominates the breakfast-cereal market, it runs banks and bakeries. Only last month Pakistan's Navy, in an audacious move, set up a barbecue business on the banks of the Indus River about 400 miles away from the Arabian Sea it's supposed to protect.
It's a happy marriage between God and greed.
For now, the general's weekend gamble seems to have paid off. From Washington and the European Union he heard regrets but no condemnation with teeth — exactly what he counted on.
General Musharraf has always tried to cultivate an impression in the West that he is the only one holding the country together, that after him we can only expect anarchy. But in a country where arts teachers and lawyers are behind bars and suicide bombers are allowed to go free, we definitely need to redefine anarchy.
Mohammed Hanif, the head of the BBC's Urdu Service, is the author of the forthcoming novel "A Case of Exploding Mangoes."