Mar 17, 2009

Is stability without democracy possible in Pakistan?

REMEMBER how the civilised world celebrated its triumph in the Cold War by establishing a new yardstick for democracy? No longer was democracy in the developing world good enough, it had to be free market democracy. However, after the free market went into a tailspin recently and all but waned as a durable and trustworthy system for global business the definition for a feasible political order too had to be recast. Faint signals are available of where we are headed.

The Indian foreign ministry’s formula on Pakistan’s current difficulties last week was nuanced, and analytical radars on both sides of the border may have missed it. The ongoing turbulence was an internal affair of Pakistan, the ministry said. That did not mean it didn’t have a preference, however.

India always liked to have strong and stable regimes in the neighbourhood, it added. This was a far cry from its single-minded pursuit of democracy in the neighbourhood after General Pervez Musharraf dethroned the Nawaz Sharif government towards the end of 1999. India stalled the Kathmandu Saarc summit for more than a year in chasing its unfulfilled quest for democracy in Pakistan at that time.

Was the reference to democracy deliberately left out this time by New Delhi in concert with the bigger powers at large? In the arcane world of diplomatic idiom, the omission could define a new thinking for South Asia that may be rumbling into shape, not just in New Delhi but in far away Washington DC, London and elsewhere.

Enough of celebrations and cheering for the flourishing democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan, their cynical message seems to suggest. Let’s take respite from the boring, low yield, and hidebound ideological obsession with the people’s will. A British journalist residing in India for years went so far as to assert that democracy was not meant for countries like Pakistan, whatever that meant.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht had anticipated the subterfuge when he characterised similar tendencies in a German dictator. If people are opposed to the new order, elect a new people, the Fuhrer had scoffed.

Alarmingly, a significant resemblance seems to already exist in the form a recent trade-off between democracy and stability, going by the views expressed by the big powers about the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat valley.

If the Taliban can bring in a strong and stable regime would they fulfil the criteria of a feasible neighbourhood? Sadly the formula works quite well in the Gulf, another worthy neighbourhood. The monarchies there are mostly considered stable and strong regimes, aren’t they.

Of course they are visited by a special bonding with the world’s most powerful democracy. The latter criterion was missing in Saddam Hussein.

He ran a stable and strong regime in his ill-fated country for years. But there were lingering misgivings about his hundred per cent loyalty to those who set the global standards for how much democracy or theocracy or plain dictatorship is desirable in the world around us.

A major blind spot with Indian analyses of the happenings in Pakistan pertains to this duplicitous relationship we have struck with our favourite country – in fact, the most popular country in India even when the world had deserted it, according to the Pew opinion poll.

Very few have shown the integrity to assert that the United States is as culpable, if not more, as the Pakistani army or wilful politicians are in fomenting religious bigotry there. They jointly or singly subvert the people’s mandate at will.

Among the very few who are able to say it as it is, M.K. Bhadrakumar, a retired former head of the Pakistan desk at the Indian foreign ministry, comes to mind.

‘Washington cannot escape the writing on the wall — that its military intervention in Afghanistan seven years ago has hopelessly destabilised Pakistan,’ he wrote last week.

‘The vast reservoir of ‘anti-Americanism’ in Pakistan has become the breeding ground of terrorists. The primary responsibility for what is happening lies with the United States — as was the case in engendering the tragedy of Pol Pot in Cambodia a long time ago.’

Bhadrakumar argued that the raging ‘anti-Americanism’ in Pakistan, ‘cutting across social strata’, practically hinders the civilian government – and even the military — from undertaking actions against the militants that lend to interpretation as collaboration with the United States. ‘To compound this, the US is dictating the manner in which Pakistan must tackle the threat to its security. The Pakistanis resent the US’s muscular diplomacy.’

I looked up the American involvement with Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia that Bhadrakumar had referred to and found that at the heart of the US support for Pol Pot was Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser.

It was the same Brzezinski who authored the raising of mujahideen in hatcheries in Pakistan. And when the former mujahideen showed early tendencies to turn upon their mentors, he had famously said: ‘What is more important? The demise of the Soviet empire or a few stirred up Muslims?’

Reading bits from Jack Colhoun’s scathing analysis of the US support for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime connects two apparently unrelated situations in Cambodia and Afghanistan, and thereby in Pakistan. Washington had covertly aided and abetted the Pol Potists’ guerrilla war to overthrow the Vietnamese backed government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which replaced the Khmer Rouge regime.

The US government’s secret partnership with the Khmer Rouge grew out of the US defeat in the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States — worried by the shift in the Southeast Asian balance of power— turned once again to geopolitical confrontation. It quickly formalised an anti-Vietnamese, anti-Soviet strategic alliance with China — an alliance whose disastrous effects have been most evident in Cambodia. For the United States, playing the ‘China card’ meant sustaining the Khmer Rouge as a geopolitical counterweight capable of destabilising the Hun Sen government in Cambodia and its Vietnamese allies.

When Vietnam intervened in Cambodia in November 1978 and drove the Pol Potists from power, Washington took immediate steps to preserve the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla movement. International relief agencies were pressured by the United States to provide humanitarian assistance to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who fled into Thailand.

Brzezinski played an important role in determining how the United States would support the Pol Pot guerrillas. Elizabeth Becker, an expert on Cambodia, wrote: ‘Brzezinski himself claims that he concocted the idea of persuading Thailand to cooperate fully with China in efforts to rebuild the Khmer Rouge.’ Brzezinski said: ‘I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol

Pot. I encouraged the Thai to help the Democratic Kampuchea. The question was how to help the Cambodian people. Pol Pot was an abomination. We could not support him but China could.’

The search for sherpas and willing accomplices in the region has become easier with the passage of time. If it was China in Southeast Asia, it was Pakistan in South Asia.

And if Pakistan looks precarious with exhaustion today there is always the other newly embraced strategic ally in the neighbourhood to join the messy journey – from democracy and human rights, to begin with, to the dubious search for strong and stable regimes in the region. Who can accuse anyone propagating the feasibility of stable and strong regimes in the region as a potential source of destablisastion in South Asia after that? And who will deny after this that politics is umbilically linked to the vagaries of global markets? By Jawed Naqvi

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