A Landmark Year in Pakistan: 2007

2007 was a landmark year for Pakistan, and the ramifications of events of the year will be felt for years to come. The year saw Islamic extremists emerge from the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and challenge the writ of the government initially in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and finally in Islamabad.

The year also saw Nawaz Sharif returning to Pakistan, being deported to Saudi Arabia and returning again; Benazir Bhutto returning to Pakistan; declaration of emergency, its revocation; the shedding of uniform by General Pervez Musharraf, and his subsequent swearing in for a new term; appointment of a new army chief; declaration of elections; and political flip-flops by political parties.

Of all the events, the developments in the field of judiciary were the most significant. The year saw a pliant judiciary - which had assumed office after taking oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) promulgated by Musharraf - start questioning the government authority - a definite novelty in Pakistan.

When the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry castigated security agencies for the disappearance of political activists and directed the intelligence agencies to produce them, it crossed the Rubicon. Musharraf, who draws his strength from the army, which is not used to being questioned by civilians, responded by suspending the chief justice.

What followed was unprecedented: civil society led by lawyers and actively supported by the independent media rose in unison to protest the government action.

This forced the government to backtrack and reinstate the chief justice. However, when the judiciary again started asserting its independence and challenging the legitimacy of the Musharraf government, it was sent packing. A handpicked judiciary with pliant judges was sworn in under a fresh PCO. Despite huge public protests, the coming elections have diverted public attention from this crucial issue.

After revoking the PCO Dec 15, the judges were given a fresh oath of office. But the judges who had refused to be sworn in under the PCO continue to languish in their homes under virtual house arrest.

On the security front, Balochistan continued to simmer but the developments in other parts of Pakistan and the government's strong-arm tactics against the media ensured that it remained away from the headlines.

Even a major incident like the killing of Nawabzada Ballach Marri, believed to be the commander of the Baloch Liberation Army, failed to bring the Baloch issue to the centre-stage.

Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal, a former chief minister and a number of other Baloch political activists, continues to be incarcerated without proper judicial procedures. This has not stirred the media significantly.

It is not that the region has quietened during the year - Baloch insurgents continued targeting symbols of government authority, almost daily, but the region disappeared from the public gaze.

The real threat to Pakistan's security came from the radical Islamic militants who had been challenging the government and its Western allies in Afghanistan from their safe havens in FATA for some time. But in 2007 they came out of the mountainous region and targeted Pakistani security forces in the settled areas of NWFP.

The most significant development for Islamic militancy was the emergence of Lal Masjid as a citadel of the Pakistani Taliban, right in the heart of Islamabad. The mosque has hogged the headlines since January when burqa-clad students of Jamia Hafsa, a school attached to the mosque, occupied a state-run children's library to protest plans to demolish mosques illegally built on government land.

This was followed by Taliban style anti-vice patrols targeting brothels and music and video shops. They kidnapped women accused of running a brothel and also policemen, freeing them only after the government conceded their demands. They even issued a 'fatwa' against Nilofar Bakhtiar, Pakistan's tourism minister after she was shown in close physical contact with a para-jumping instructor.

The government finally acted only after they kidnapped Chinese citizens and China made a strong appeal for their protection. Hundreds died in the operation launched to flush out the militants from Lal Masjid. Many more lives including those of over 200 security personnel were lost subsequently in reprisal suicide attacks by the militants.

It was for the first time since the 'war on terror' started that the Pakistan Army as an institution was targeted rather than Musharraf and his top generals. What was even more alarming was that a large number of well-armed troops surrendered to the militants in different parts of FATA, suggesting some sort of an ideological support for the militant cause.

The militants subsequently expanded their area of operations and seized the idyllic Swat Valley. Maulana Fazlullah, who heads the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in Swat Valley, closely allied with the Taliban, had been asking his followers through his FM radiosince the Lal Masjid operations to prepare for jehad .

The manner in which security forces surrendered their weapons to the militants and the region fell under the sway of the militants showed the gravity of the situation. Finally, the Pakistan Army supported by artillery and helicopter gunships won back Swat after a battle that lasted over two weeks and claimed over 300 lives. But Fazlullah joined the ranks of elusive Mulla Omar and Al Qaeda leadership -- by disappearing.

The growing Islamic militancy in Pakistan made the US to realise that its strategy of ushering in 'Enlightened Moderation' through Musharraf had not worked and the real reasons for the rising extremism in Islamic world in general and Pakistan in particular is the absence of pluralism and the right of democratic dissent.

While it could do nothing about pluralism in Pakistan, it tried to usher in democracy to tackle extremism. It realised that in the absence of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, the anti-regime opposition was getting channelled through the fundamentalist forces being represented by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) , the only force capable of mobilising masses in their absence.

This appreciation forced the US to pressurise Bhutto and Musharraf to come together. Bhutto presented an ideal option for the ruler of a 'moderate' Islamic state from a Western perspective - a Western-educated woman with a mass support base.

However, by striking a deal with Musharraf, Bhutto did compromise her position and there was therefore erosion in her support base. The proclamation of emergency and its subsequent revocation helped Bhutto to distance herself from Musharraf and assume the mantle of an opposition leader.

The manner in which Benazir was allowed to come back after the proclamation of emergency and the way she was alternately allowed to move around and placed under house arrest clearly pointed towards some collusion with Musharraf. Her insistence on contesting the coming elections and reluctance to give primacy to reinstatement of sacked judges have divided the opposition and helped Musharraf's cause.

On the other hand, the doffing of uniform by Musharraf and the selection of General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, a former staff officer of Bhutto, as the army chief have ostensibly been done to bolster the stature of the Pakistan People's Party leader.

Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan after being booted out the first time he flew in from Saudi Arabia, was forced to follow Bhutto and has agreed to contest the elections. MMA has split.

If the elections in Pakistan are seen as credible, it would definitely help to stem the tide of rising extremism. The people by voting for secular parties like PPP, PML (N) or ANP would marginalise the MMA.

However, this is only possible if the people believe that the elections are free and fair and the elected government, not Musharraf, will wield real authority.

If it does not happen and the elections are viewed as just another farcical exercise to provide legitimacy to Musharraf, the party that would gain the most would be the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is the largest of all political parties boycotting elections.

This could greatly accentuate the religious extremism in Pakistan. It is therefore essential that Western governments must insist that Musharraf removes all curbs on media and makes some sort of a commitment for the reinstatement of the judges after the elections, so that the public sees in these elections a medium to express their dissent from the current regime.

(Alok Bansal is a Research Fellow at New Delhi's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He can be reached alokbansal_nda@yahoo.co.in)  


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