All is not well in the "land of the pure": the "stans"—Baluchistan and Waziristan (both North and South)—are on fire; the dams' controversy has subsided somewhat, but has been replacedby the fury surrounding Europe's cartoons. The anger of the protests is also fuelled by the exorbitant prices of essential commodities, and Pakistan's opposition parties, sensing blood, are going for the jugular. Kashmir has been sold down the Jhelum river, with nothing to show in return. In all this chaos, US president George Bush, starting on a journey to India and Pakistan on March 1 (after Crescent press time), will be in Pakistan when the opposition parties launch a campaign ostensibly against the cartoons but in reality aimed at general Pervez Musharraf.
The question is whether the commando president, who has ruled Pakistan with an iron fist since October 12, 1999, can survive this crisis. Most observers think there is no imminent threat to his rule, but politics is a fickle game, especially in Pakistan; there politicians of any stripe can turn on a dime. Those who are singing Musharraf's praises today can easily abandon him if they sense the ground shifting from underneath his feet. Musharraf will present Bush's visit as an endorsement of his rule, the American cowboy conveniently forgetting his mantra about democracy, but anti-American sentiment is running so high in Pakistan that too close an association with the US can become the kiss of death. Musharraf's opponents realize this and are exploiting it under the cover of the cartoon controversy.
How quickly the cartoon controversy, which started against a non-entity like Denmark, has turned into anti-American sentiment shows the deep anger of Muslims that exists just below the surface. American franchises and banks have been targeted in many parts of Pakistan, including Lahore and Peshawar. In Lahore students and others took over the Mall on February 14 and smashed vehicles and buildings, including the windows of the provincial assembly building: an ominous sign that ordinary people see this as a den of thieves and opportunists, rather than a body of elected representatives. The following day, similar scenes took place in Peshawar, only on a much bigger scale. Virtually everyone was out on the streets in one of the largest rallies ever held in the city. Some protestors took advantage of the mayhem and torched a number of buses belonging to the Daewoo company that had made travel in the city a little easier for people. Private transporters, envious of Daewoo's success, decided to take the opportunity to encourage hooligans to torch their buses. Apart from such vandalism, people's anger at anything American is very noticeable. The reason is obvious: America is seen as the principal tormentor of Muslims, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or Guantanamo Bay. Similarly, the Pakistan army's attacks on its own people in North and South Waziristan are seen as it doing America's dirty work. Not satisfied with the Pakistanis' "performance", US planes bombed Bajaur Agency in January, killing 18 people.
Pakistan's rulers, whether politicians or generals, may delude themselves into believing that all will be well if they control the flow of information through television and the newspapers, but they forget that the people experience such problems daily. Sugar prices have reached Rs 45 per kg; petrol sells at Rs 57 per litre. Some may argue that most people do not own a car and need not worry about high petrol prices, but this argument ignores the fact that such price hikes affect bus, rickshaw and taxi fares. When prices go up and there is no relief for the average person, it increases resentment against those at the helm of affairs. With minimum wages, life is extremely harsh for most Pakistanis, who earn about $1 per day.
To this struggle for survival is added the brew of insults heaped by the cartoons and the almost daily attacks on ordinary people by the army on the pretext of fighting al-Qa'ida and Taliban remnants, all to appease Uncle Sam. Although it is impossible to satisfy the Americans, the people can see that their own army has turned its guns on them. Never before in the history ofPakistan have the armed forces been so despised as today. The people suffer under the weight of spiralling costs but can see no end to the military's privileges and escalating demands, not even for the purpose of defending the country's borders but to maintain a lifestyle that is beyond the country's capacity to support.
This scenario has emerged at a time when the government's incompetence has been exposed as never before by the earthquake of October 8, which left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions displaced. The much-touted efficiency of the military was conspicuously absent. The wars in Waziristan have stretched the military to breaking point. Both North andSouth Waziristan have become virtually no-go areas. Despite this, the regime has opened a new front in Baluchistan; the Marri and Bugti tribes are being attacked and even schools are bombed. In retaliation, the tribesmen have blown up oil and gas pipelines.
If Musharraf believes this will endear him to the Americans, he had better think again. The Americans are upset with him precisely because they believe he has failed to curb Taliban and al-Qa'ida operations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Despite their being incapable of doing this themselves, they expect Pakistan to do it for them. For this Musharraf has only himself to blame. He is the one who boasted about crushing the Taliban and al-Qa'ida and, despite his rounding up and turning over hundreds of suspected al-Qa'ida members, the Americans demand more. The reason is that Americans are facing increased resistance in Afghanistan, for which they blame Pakistan. "Suicide bombings", hitherto confined to Iraq, have now come to Afghanistan as well. Nothing scares the Americans, and indeed the zionist occupiers of Palestine, more than "suicide" bombers.
It is on the question of Kashmir, however, that Musharraf is most vulnerable. He had reposed great hopes in India, believing that if he made unilateral concessions the Indians would respond. He was led into this trap by the Americans and the Indians; the latter have used each concession as a starting-point to demand more. If Musharraf backs out of this he loses face, and if he continues along this path he has to give more. He has tried to use the Kashmiri leadership to sing his tune and some, like Mir Waez Umar Farooq, have done just that, but he is considered a lightweight in the Kashmiri leadership. Syed Ali Shah Gailani, leader of the Jama'at-e Islami and head of his own faction of the All-Parties Hurriyet Conference, has refused to accept Musharraf's U-turn on Kashmir. Gailani has stuck to his guns about the UN Security Council resolutions, and demanded that India and Pakistan both honour them because they affect the future of the people of Kashmir and only they have the right to decide this crucial question. Within the political establishment in Pakistan, few are interested in keeping the Kashmir issue alive, but Musharraf can be undermined on the Kashmir issue, especially because of his precarious position on so many other fronts.
A combination of factors could bring down the man who rules by the gun. If the generals in GHQ decide that he is becoming a liability, they may decide to get rid of him as Yahya did to Ayub in March 1969 and Gul Hassan to Yahya in December 1971. Kingship, as the saying goes, knows no kinship. It was generals Mahmood and Aziz who brought Musharraf to power while he was stuck in the air, uncertain whether his plane would be able to touch down safely, yet it did not take long for Musharraf to get rid of both. Musharraf must know that his own generals can do the same to him.