Saturday, February 16, 2008

Pakistan: What After the Weekend?

Pakistan: What After the Weekend?

By J. Sri Raman

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It is always lonely at the top, and it must be particularly so for a leader so precariously perched at the moment as Pervez Musharraf. With just a weekend to go before what he calls the "mother of elections," he can only wonder what the womb of time will bring forth for a traumatized Pakistan. Amidst all the frightening, agonizing suspense, however, a familiar voice of support, if not friendship, has reached out to the retired general.

The voice emanates from India's National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan, representing his country's external affairs establishment at its wiliest, if not its wisest. On February 12, less than a week before the scheduled elections, Narayanan deemed it fit to raise again the subject of the dangerous insecurity of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Said he: "Credible reports suggest that the region has been both a source and a destination for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction material and equipment, a situation that is cause for concern. A great threat to stability from nuclear weapons in the hands of volatile states cannot be discounted."

Alarm bells rang immediately in Pakistan - not about the nuclear weapons and the possibility of their falling into "wrong hands," but about the electoral motive behind New Delhi's exhibition of extraordinary concern. The idea, according to young but well-known Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, was apparently to suggest that the right hands of Musharraf were needed to rescue Pakistan from the fate the alleged nuclear insecurity foreshadowed.

Some Indian defenders of Narayanan want his statement to be read without a reference to Musharraf. But the NSA has only made Mir and others sound more plausible by talking about the same language as Washington in this context. Narayanan talked of al-Qaeda and "rouge states" as the greatest danger to India's security and added a bit about the "existential threats and vulnerabilities that pluralistic, secular and democratic countries such as India - with rapidly modernizing economies - face from nations in the region that are authoritarian, anti-democratic and anti-secular, approximating to failed states."

Narayanan's invocation of Pakistan's nuclear peril sounds, to most Pakistanis, all the more like special pleading for Musharraf because of his earlier utterances on India's security in the shadow of the elections. The NSA had drawn a lot of flak for projecting Benazir Bhutto as an unsafe bet for India-Pakistan peace before her tragic assassination. He had also gone out of his way to certify the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal when the assessment appeared to suit Musharraf more. On December 16, 2007, in the face of conflicting views, he declared: "India believes that nuclear weapons in Pakistan are pretty safely guarded, making it extremely difficult for them to fall into wrong hands with the United States paying very close attention to the issue."

As opposed to Narayanan and the like-minded among George Bush's lieutenants, almost all Pakistani observers, cutting across political affiliations and sympathies, are remarkably certain about the security of Pakistan's "crown jewels" as the country's nuclear hawks call them. Two important points, however, need to be noted here.

In the first place, an utter uncertainty about the post-election political prospects accompanies this near-certainty of nuclear safety. Second, and equally important, the sure forecasts made about the nuclear arsenal's security are all based on an unreserved faith in the armed forces as an institution.

Even if we leave aside uncertainties about an election being held at all (despite al-Qaeda's and the Taliban's disavowal of all intention to disrupt the process), those about the results and their acceptability still remain. Most opinion polls have pointed to the frontline position of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the sure failure of the King's Party or the Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ). The predominant speculation is that elections will produce a hung National Assembly (Lower House of Pakistan's Parliament or Majlise Soor). The contrast between the opinion poll findings and the frightened speculation illustrates the confusion and uncertainty about post-February 18 Pakistan.

The post-poll uncertainty applies to personalities as well. Musharraf's own contingency plans, of course, are a closely guarded secret and the subject of many a guessing game. No one knows what Pakistan's political future has in store for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has declined any office under Musharraf and whose more popular Pakistan Muslim League is still running a distant second in the opinion polls. Until the other day, the PPP projected its vice chairman, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, as its prime ministerial candidate after Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari gave himself organizational responsibility and sent son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari back to studies in London. Zardari, however, has now declared the party has not decided on its prime ministerial nominee.

In striking contrast with all this is the nearly all-around certainty about nuclear security, resting on the reputation of the armed forces, that remains basically unquestioned despite Musharraf's burgeoning unpopularity. The most determined opponents of military rule, the staunchest supporters of a civilian alternative, are agreed that the arsenal has remained and will remain safe under a system (involving a three-tier protection and separation of warheads from delivery vehicles) of the armed forces' crafting and administration. The possibility of factional rifts in the armed forces, even in such testing or tempting times, is practically ruled out.

The armed forces, in fact, are even implicitly trusted to deal with any tricky post-election situations. The media-projected image of Musharraf-chosen armed forces chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani would appear as meant to allay post-election apprehensions. In report after reassuring report, we are told about the resolve of the 55-year-old, four-star general to keep the armed forces away from anything but the law-and-order aspects of the elections; to recall officers from lucrative civilian posts, and to return economic enterprises to the civilian sector. All of which may well be true, but, without being unfair to untried Kiyani, did not all past military rulers of Pakistan start off with sacred democratic resolves?

A weekend before the elections, a certainty past all denial is the need for the democratic movements to continue beyond the date of polling. In these columns, as elsewhere, it has been noted that a major weakness of the movement, launched under the lead of lawyers, was its middle-class character. They have now been joined by people crushed under soaring prices of atta (wheat flour, ingredient of the the poor Pakistani's daily bread) and other essential commodities. The movement can now march forward, if it stays wary of military-feudal machinations.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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