President-General Pervez Musharraf gave two reasons for suspending Pakistan’s Constitution for the second time in eight years. One was a rising tide of Islamic militancy. The other was an “interfering” judiciary that was making governance and the army’s “war on terror” impossible. He was lying on both counts.
True, Pakistan is under threat from a retrograde Islam. A native “Pakistan” Taliban now rules the tribal regions of Waziristan, backed by foreign militants linked to Al Qaeda. And North West Frontier Province districts like Swat are being overrun by radical clerics. But these insurgencies have been simmering since July, when commandos prized Islamabad’s Red Mosque from Islamic radicals and Musharraf broke a cease-fire with the Taliban in Waziristan. On neither occasion did he invoke special powers. He already had them. Similarly, Musharraf has been riled by “judicial activism” ever since he was forced by a mass, lawyer-led campaign to restore Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as Chief Justice in July. The General had sacked him in March, wary that Chaudhry might rule unconstitutional a second presidential term. Since his reinstatement, the Justice has issued rulings against the government, but none could be construed as a cause for martial law. What drew Musharraf’s sword was his fear that the Supreme Court would agree with petitions before it that his October re-election was invalid. “The Constitution is clear,” says Aitzaz Ahsan, who represented the petitioners. “No person can contest political office while in military service.”
Musharraf chose to impose martial law to ensure his survival, coating it in a sugar of “Islamic extremism” and a “politicized judiciary.” Will Pakistanis swallow it? Many lawyers say they won’t. Since the emergency, hundreds have taken to the streets, hoping their protest will snowball like the movement to reinstate Chaudhry. It’s going to be a much tougher fight this time around. In the first few days of martial law some 2,000 were detained, mainly civil society activists. The independent and electronic media have been gagged, and the Supreme Court has been purged. In the days after the decree, the opposition parties were conspicuous by their reticence, as were the masses. “The lawyers need support,” says analyst Tarik Fatemi. “This is not just a battle for the judiciary. It’s a fight for Pakistan’s soul.”
Benazir Bhutto wears the soul of Pakistan like a sequined gown. In October she returned to a mass and bloody reception in Karachi, courtesy of a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. On November 7 she arrived in Islamabad, denouncing the dictatorship. She said that for there to be a peaceful resolution of the crisis, Musharraf would have to restore the Constitution, step down as army chief and hold elections, as planned, in January. Otherwise she would raise the immense street power of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) against the emergency, first at a rally in Rawalpindi and then in a “long march” from Lahore.
These demands are echoed in Washington and London, where they were minted. For the Bush Administration especially, Musharraf’s resort to martial law is a foreign policy failure on an almost Iraqi scale. Since 9/11, when Musharraf changed sides in the “war on terror,” US strategy has been predicated on a simple premise: only a dictator, backed by the army, can pursue that fight in Pakistan. A democratic government might be swayed by public opinion, which is opposed to NATO in Afghanistan and the hunt for the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal regions.
For a while the policy worked, more or less: Musharraf kept a lid on domestic dissent in the name of “enlightened moderation” and offered up a steady supply of Al Qaeda and Taliban scalps. Then came the Chief Justice imbroglio of last spring and the realization that the emperor had no populist clothes. And neither had the army. Washington reached for Bhutto. Again, the premise was simple: in return for amnesty on corruption charges–and a seat in government–she and the PPP would lend Musharraf the civilian legitimacy he lacked. “It’s a loveless marriage, so the General can combat terrorists and the lady can play democracy,” said journalist and historian Ahmed Rashid.
Musharraf’s emergency threatens to rend that marriage apart. Washington could reverse it by using its huge financial clout–running at hundreds of millions in military aid a year–to bring the General to heel. Bhutto’s three conditions are America’s terms for reconciliation. But, make no mistake, they are not about ousting the dictator from Pakistan’s politics. They are America’s way of keeping him and the army in power. Even so, it’s not clear if the General will play ball. Insiders say he prefers the certainty of army command to the vagaries of civilian presidency. In any case, he feels the judiciary is out to get him.
Martial law, or martial law-lite, is not a solution for most Pakistanis. When polled, they are clear: force has to be used against those who spread religion by violence, but development, education and democracy are necessary for those who don’t. In all cases, it should be an elected civilian government that decides, not the army or Washington. One thing is certain: Islamic militancy is not born from an overactive judiciary, whatever Musharraf says. It grows from state failure. There is no greater admission of state failure than martial law–and few American foreign policy foul-ups greater than Pakistan.