The Lawless Frontier

The tribal lands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border reveal the future of conflict in the Subcontinent, along with the dark side of globalization
General Musharraf

Pakistan has never been well governed. After the military fought its catastrophic war with India in 1971, hopes were placed on the new democratic leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a wealthy landlord from Sind. But Bhutto turned out to be a divisive populist who sowed fear with his security service and surrounded himself with sycophants. His 1977 re-election was marred by fraud; riots broke out and Bhutto declared martial law. Soldiers fired on people in the streets. The military wasn't happy; the army chief of staff, Zia ul-Haq, led a coup.

It was Zia who released the fundamentalist genie: though moderate himself, he allied the military with Sunni radicals in order to win support for his new regime. After his death, in 1988 in an air crash that has yet to be explained, democracy returned with the election of Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, as Prime Minister. Though educated at Harvard, Benazir had no political or administrative experience and had made what by all accounts was a disastrous marriage to Asif Ali Zardari, who later became her Investment Minister. Zardari's large-scale theft of public funds undermined his wife's government. Elections next brought the Punjabi businessman Nawaz Sharif to power. Together with his brother, Shabaz, Sharif ran Pakistan as a family enterprise; the brothers' reputation for taking huge kickbacks and other financial malfeasance outdid even that of Benazir's cabinet. By his second term, reportedly, Sharif was amassing so much money that it was feared that he could perpetually buy off the members of the National Assembly and create a virtual dictatorship. The Sharif and Bhutto governments stand accused of stealing $2 billion in public money, part of some $30 billion smuggled out of the country during democratic rule.

When, last October, General Musharraf toppled Sharif's government in a bloodless coup, the West saw it as a turn for the worse. However, Pakistanis saw the accession of General Musharraf as a rare positive development in a country where almost all trends are bad. The local media are (at least for now) freer under the military than they were under Sharif, whose aides frequently intimidated journalists. Musharraf has initiated no extensive personality cult. He has said more to promote human rights than have the officials of recent democratic governments, working to end such abhorrent tribal and religious practices as "honor killings" and "blasphemy laws" (though radical clerics have forced him to back down on these issues). Mehnaz Akbar, of the private Asia Foundation, in Islamabad, says, "This is the most liberal time ever in Pakistan." Musharraf, an admirer of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is a like-minded modernizer. He shakes hands with women in full public view, and one of the first pictures taken of him after he assumed power shows him holding his two poodles, even though dogs are considered unclean by traditional Muslims. Most important, as one Pakistani journalist told me, "Musharraf speaks with conviction and people believe him, whereas Benazir, though an intellectual, was never believed."

President Bill Clinton's visit to Pakistan in March was not a public-relations success. Clinton, who was opposed to the military take-over, refused to shake hands with Musharraf for the television cameras. A day later Pakistanis saw Clinton, on television in Geneva, clasping the hands of the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad—whose regime, they knew, was far more repressive than that of any Pakistani military ruler since the founding of their state.

Musharraf is characterized in the West as a dictator who supports fundamentalist terrorists in Afghanistan and Kashmir and who is not moving fast enough to restore democracy. The truth is somewhat different. Musharraf, one of the last British-style aristocratic officers in the Pakistani army, is a man in the middle. The West demands that he stop supporting Islamic militants; his fellow generals, who carried out the coup in his name, are Islamic hardliners, capable of staging another coup if Musharraf puts too much distance between himself and the Taliban and the Muslim fighters in Kashmir. Moreover, some analysts in Islamabad worry that Musharraf might be moving too fast on too many fronts in his drive to reform Pakistan. In addition to promoting human rights, a free press, and local elections that threaten tribal mafias, he has challenged the smugglers throughout Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier. As the gun battle I saw in Quetta demonstrated, Musharraf has struck hard against various ethnic nationalists and criminal groups. Unlike previous anti-corruption drives in Pakistan's history, Musharraf's has indiscriminately targeted officials from all political parties and ethnic groups. And Musharraf has not relied on fundamentalist organizations like the Maududi-influenced Jama'at-I-Islami ("Islamic Society") for support, as Zia did. He has in fact alienated many vested interests, who have the will and the means to fight back—which is why, despite his liberal instincts, Musharraf may yet declare martial law.

Even if Musharraf's reformist plans succeed, one crucial element will remain: the military itself, which with its own factories, agribusinesses, road-construction firms, schools, hotels, and so on, constitutes a parallel state. No less than the civilian sector, the military is mired in corruption, and yet it is exempt from investigations by the courts. Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a former Foreign Secretary, told me that Pakistan's only hope may be "a genuine hybrid system in which the army accepts responsibility for poverty and illiteracy in return for limited political power." A successful hybrid system, he went on, would "democratize the army." Rifaat Hussain, who chairs the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-Azam University, in Islamabad, agrees: "I will not rule out a formal constitution on the Turkish model in order to create a national-security council and give the army constitutional privileges. We must find a way to legally stabilize civil-military relations."

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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