by Eric Margolis
WASHINGTON DC -- Pakistan's armed forces finally overthrew the crumbling
government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this week after he tried to
dismiss the army commander and riots erupted across the troubled nation.
While the outside world wrung its hands over the latest crisis for
Pakistan's so-called `democracy,' this act of political amputation was
greeted with joy by most Pakistanis, who were fed up by the incompetence,
growing corruption, and increasingly autocratic behavior of the highly
unpopular Nawaz government. The military appeared to have once again
rescued Pakistan from itself.
I interviewed Prime Minister Sharif at length in 1992 at his home in
Lahore. After hours of conversation, I was left with the feeling that the
businessman- turned politician was cunning, but remarkably shallow, one of
the most unimpressive national leaders I've ever met. How could this
deeply limited man run Pakistan, I wondered?
We shouldn't weep for Nawaz, who may be tried for corruption with his
powerful brother and other members of his extended family - just as Nawaz
put his predecessor, the ousted Benazir Bhutto, on trial on similar
charges. Holding public office in Pakistan is seen as a license to steal,
if not for the leader, then certainly for the leader's family, relatives
and political cronies.
The bungling Nawaz must bear the blame for Pakistan's national humiliation
in July after Kashmiri mujihadin, supplied by the Pakistani Army, occupied
heights overlooking Kargil on the Indian-held side of disputed Kashmir.
Nawaz was summoned to Washington, dressed down in public by President
Clinton, and ordered to pull the mujihadin back.
Nawaz, who approved the assault designed to bring the forgotten Kashmir
dispute to world attention, first disclaimed any Pakistani involvement,
then caved in to US pressure, pulled back the Kashmiri fighters, and
blamed his generals for the `rogue operation.' The army was furious and
took its revenge on Tuesday.
We should waste no tears for Pakistan's sham democracy either, which was
tribal warfare and pillage conducted behind a façade of mock democratic
institutions. It's unfortunate soldiers must run Pakistan, an important,
strategic nation of 140 million, the world's seventh most populous
country, that was created in 1947 - a sort of Muslim version of Israel –
as a haven and beacon of Islamic progress and good government. But
democracy has never taken root in Pakistan, a riotous, only half-formed
nation that ranks as one of the most difficult countries on earth to
The military, which is the only institution that works in Pakistan, has
ruled the nation for almost half its 52 years of life. The generals at
least brought a good measure of national stability and relative honesty.
The regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq has the best relations with India of any
Pakistani government since 1947. But the tough generals were no better
than the politicians at solving Pakistan's grave economic problems.
Pakistan's feeble US$61 billion economy is only one –tenth that of Canada.
Most of the government's income is gobbled up by the 587,000-man armed
forces and debt repayment, leaving only crumbs for education,
infrastructure, and health. Seven-times larger India is attempting to
spend Pakistan into the ground through a massive conventional and nuclear
arms race that neither nation can afford. Without the life-support of
foreign loans from the IMF, World Bank, and wealthy nations, Pakistan's
economy would collapse, plunging the nation into economic and political
chaos that might tempt India to invade Pakistan just as it did former East
Pakistan(now Bangladesh) in 1971, and detach the southern Pakistani
province of Sind as an Indian protectorate.
The general's revolt was also a reaction to too much heavy-handed American
interference in Pakistani affairs, notably the Kargil fiasco, Washington
punishing embargo of Pakistan's economy and military over the nuclear
issue, and bitter disagreement about Afghanistan.
Washington riposted this week by denouncing the coup, threatening to halt
aid from the `independent' IMF and World Bank and claiming – quite falsely
– that nefarious Islamic forces led by the Afghan Taliban, were taking
over Pakistan. In truth, Pakistan's generals are staunchly pro-western
and barely influenced by Pakistan's loud but impotent Islamic parties, who
have done embarrassingly poorly in recent elections. Two influential
retired Islamist generals had nothing to do with the coup.
Pakistan's military does not want to openly rule, so it will try to
establish a government of civilian technocrats that will quiet foreign
criticism. When this fails to work, the generals may have to turn to
Pakistan's sole remaining legitimate national political leader, exiled
former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who is now watching events from
London. Benazir is, of course, delighted to see her nemesis, Nawaz,
overthrown, as she told me this week, but is waiting to see how events
unfold. Washington, which lately gave Benazir the cold shoulder in favor
of the compliant Nawaz, is once again courting her.
India put its armed forces on alert this week and expressed deep concern
the new Pakistani regime would counter-attack in Kashmir. But Pakistan's
generals know they would lose any major war with India and are more
cautious than civilian politicians. Besides, Pakistan's soldiers will
have their hands full trying to once again govern an obstreperous,
maddeningly complex nation that resolutely refuses to be governed.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and
broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada, and the author of War At The Top Of
Copyright © 1999 Eric Margolis - All Rights