Favoring the Strongman in Pakistan


By Rannie Amiri*

Yellow Times
November 06, 2003

From walking through airport security in socks to the establishment of military tribunals in Cuba, Americans are under constant barrage by reminders of how life has changed since September 11, 2001. A new cabinet position and federal bureaucracy has been created, the Department of Homeland Security, along with a color-coded terror threat level continuously running along the bottom of our television screens. The Patriot Act was passed to help facilitate the deportation of Arabs and Muslims from the United States, smallpox vaccinations administered to our emergency workers, and instructions given on how to safe-proof our homes with duct tape to protect against biological or chemical warfare. Most of these inconveniences, intrusions, and recommendations are nevertheless regarded as minor nuisances in the daily life of the average American.

We are led to believe the manner in which the United States deals with foreign threats, particularly Middle Eastern, will now also be different: no longer a policy of diplomacy and containment, but one of pre-emptive, swift military action in the name of domestic security. Since September 11, the United States has waged two wars in a relatively short time frame: the first in Afghanistan against the Taliban/al-Qaeda federation in direct retaliation for the New York and Washington attacks, and the second against Iraq and Saddam Hussein for his potential to launch a similar strike.

Ironically, one aspect of United States foreign policy which has changed very little, despite the alleged lessons learned from 9/11 and the two wars which ensued, has been the continued support of military dictatorships over budding democracies in the region. To illustrate this, we can examine the leaders of the two nations which share borders with the countries involved in the recent conflicts, as well as with each other. They are President Muhammad Khatami of Iran and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

The United States has a long and sordid history in its relationships with autocrats and despots who have served the United States' interests and foreign policy objectives well. These include, to name only a few, Augusto Pinochet, Anastasio Somoza, Manuel Noreiga, Ferdinand Marcos, and Saddam Hussein. Not to be forgotten is the support given to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and one Osama bin Laden.

Previous rulers of Iran and Pakistan are also included in this infamous cast of characters. The CIA orchestrated the 1953 coup which deposed the popular and democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister, Dr. Muhammad Musaddeq, after he nationalized Iranian oil reserves. The Peacock Throne was restored under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlevi, and maintained by the ruthless CIA and Israeli-trained secret service, SAVAK.

In Pakistan, after staging a coup d'etat in 1977, General Zia ul-Haq and his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were instrumental in suppressing perceived internal threats, supporting the anti-Communist Mujahideen in Afghanistan, as well as procuring and distributing a significant portion of the world's heroin supply. Both Shah Pahlevi and General Zia ul-Haq were ruthless dictators who stifled any hints of democracy in their own countries, yet were bolstered and actively supported by the United States for their anti- Communist postures.

Iran is now once again led by a populist leader in the person of President Muhammad Khatami, who won landslide election victories in May 1997 and again in June 2001 against conservative opponents. In Pakistan, in contrast, General Pervez Musharraf follows in the footsteps of General Zia ul-Haq, ascending to power through a military coup which overthrew the elected Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in 1999. As if grinning at the number of times history has had to repeat itself, the United States once again is shunning an Iranian populist and backing a Pakistani dictator.

Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, as stated, was elected by overwhelming majorities in two elections on a platform of political, economic, and social reforms. True, the candidates on these ballots had to be approved by the ultimate purveyor of authority in Iran, the Council of Guardians. However, President Khatami and those whom he ran against, held divergent enough views that the choice was meaningful and not perfunctory. Voting for Khatami, therefore, represented an expression of the people's will to proceed with greater reforms in Iranian society, and away from the continued religious conservatism embodied by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

President Khatami's efforts, to a large extent, have been hampered by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the conservative Council of Guardians. No one, though, can question that change is taking place in Iran. To a large extent, a free press has emerged, which is a novel development when compared to many Arab nations. Women have voting rights, and enjoy positions of authority in both the economic and political sectors. The growing pains of such transitions are also evident, with anti- establishment newspapers intermittently shut down, and detentions and house arrests of the more outspoken critics of the regime undertaken. Despite this, the seeds of democracy and reform have no doubt been planted by President Khatami.

Political changes have also developed in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. All of these nations, however, are still ruled by a consortium of non- elected kings, princes, and emirs. Demonstrations against their rule are prohibited, whereas public demonstrations against both Khatami and Khamenei have occurred in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, a longstanding United States ally, women are still waiting to be issued driver's licenses. In this and other Gulf countries, before women can express their will at the ballot box, they are first waiting to be granted the status of citizens of the nation!

Iran is at a juncture similar to that of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of "glasnost." Instead of fostering and nurturing nascent reforms in Iran through the channels of diplomacy and dialogue, the United States seems bound to repeat the events of 1953 and put "their man" in Tehran, as they have already done in Afghanistan, and will likely do in Iraq. An avenue already being pursued is support of the Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (despite being on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations).

In Pakistan, on the other hand, we nearly find the opposite situation. General Pervez Musharraf, after staging a military coup overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister, promised a quick transition to civilian rule. His actions spoke otherwise, as he suspended the constitution, ruled by martial law, and appointed himself president in 2001. Elections were eventually held in 2002, at which time Zafarullah Khan Jamali was elected prime minister, but he wields little real power. Pakistan still remains in the hands of a dictator.

The maintenance and support of the Taliban in Afghanistan over the past several years by the ISI under Musharraf has been notorious. Elements of the ISI continue to be critical in providing refuge to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Both the flight of al-Qaeda operatives into remote Pakistani provinces and tense relations with nuclear rival India over the contentious issue of Kashmir have made Washington uneasy. However, the publicly committed stand of Musharraf to actively participate in the war on terrorism (akin to Zia ul- Haq's crusade against Communism) has kept the dictator in the good graces of President Bush.

In light of the above circumstances, these questions must be asked of the United States government: did the Musaddeq-Shah-Khomeini chronology or even the short-lived gains of supporting Saddam Hussein provide no insight as to the likely outcome of an alliance between the United States and a military dictator? How long can General/President Musharraf be buoyed against both democratic and religious extremist tides before the internal pressures become too great and fracture the country? Does not the United States have more to gain in establishing formal relations with the reform-minded President Khatami of Iran than in fomenting internal and external dissent?

The United States has a golden opportunity to further its stated objectives of democracy and security in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent. President Khatami and his reforms should be encouraged. The rhetoric against Iran as a member of an "Axis of Evil" needs to be toned down, and eventually removed all together. Iran, unlike Pakistan, has been invaluable in stabilizing post-war Afghanistan as the largest donor nation and in opposing the influence of the Taliban. Sadly, sectarian violence in Pakistan is now commonplace, and with the continued al-Qaeda presence and tensions with India, Pakistan appears to be the next hotbed of instability in an already volatile region.

Unfortunately, we are left to conclude that the approach Washington has historically taken in supporting dictators over populists in the Middle East and West Asia has changed very little since September 11. Pakistan, under the self-appointed President Pervez Musharraf, and Iran, under the elected President Muhammad Khatami, are the respective disparate examples of this same failed policy.

About the Author: Rannie Amiri is an observer, commentator, and exponent of issues dealing with the Arab and Islamic worlds

More Information on Empire?
More General Analysis on Empire

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.