For the third time in Pakistan's traumatic history, the army has seized power--this time, apparently, against the advice of the United States. The country is under martial law. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shahbaz and Gen. Mohammad Ziauddin of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) are under house arrest. The people--disillusioned, apathetic, weary--appear indifferent to the fate of their venal politicians. For several years, the rot at the heart of Sharif's government had been a national scandal. Politicians busy lining their own pockets had no time for the welfare of the people.
A half-century of decay, abetted by US policy, has brought us to the present crisis, and now with no progressive force in the country whatsoever, every choice is a bad one. For three weeks before the coup, military representatives and civilian politicians hastened to Washington like colonial minions, and word has it that the US government was split in choosing sides. Since 1951 Washington has felt that the army was the best guarantor of its interests. The State Department backed Gen. Ayub Khan's dictatorship until it was swept aside following a popular uprising in 1968. The Pentagon and the Defense Intelligence Agency, eager for a proxy in Afghanistan, spawned General Zia, whose monstrous regime brutalized the political culture until 1988. Now the military houses some of the same forces nourished by Zia and his US sponsors in creating the Afghani Taliban, and Washington is nervous.
Sharif was no better a bet against a fundamentalist challenge. In elections after the 1997 palace coup against Benazir Bhutto, he captured 80 percent of Parliament, but only 25 percent of the electorate had bothered to vote. He promised much and delivered nothing. Pakistan has never provided the bulk of its population with free education or healthcare, but in the past it at least subsidized the price of food and protected the majority from random killings. No longer. A country that spends money to build nuclear weapons forces its poor to eat grass. Every day people driven insane by poverty commit suicide. Last January a transport worker in Hyderabad who had not been paid for two years soaked himself in petrol and set himself alight. He left a letter: "I have lost patience. Me and my fellow workers have been protesting the nonpayment of our salaries for a long time. Nobody takes any notice. My wife and mother are seriously ill, and I have no money for their treatment. My family is starving, and I am fed up with quarrels. I don't have the right to live. I am sure the flames of my body will reach the houses of the rich one day."
The Sharif brothers and their father, faithful neoliberals, created an enterprise culture in which everything was for sale, including politicians and generals. Rumors abound that to buy time and extract yet more money, the Sharif family provided sacks full of dollars to friendly generals, to no avail. When Sharif decided to oust the army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then on an official visit to Sri Lanka, and replace him with the ISI's General Ziauddin, Musharraf's supporters moved swiftly. Ziauddin, Pakistan's principal supplier of the Taliban, had been promoted by Sharif to appease the fundamentalist opposition, but was loathed by secular officers, who had their own resentments as cold war orphans.
"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," a retired general once told me. "We've served our purpose, and they think we can just be flushed down the toilet." Sharif had begun contemplating a trading relationship with India, and last year, fearful that such a rapprochement might lessen its power and reduce its budget, the army played the nuclear card. Now it has seized power, but in changed conditions. If Washington refuses to tolerate a new dictator, the most likely scenario is a caretaker government of IMF-approved technocrats. That, too, will achieve little. And then what? Groups of ISI-armed fundamentalists are in the wings, and if they decide to split the army and unleash civil war, the consequences for the entire region could be devastating.