LONDON — “There’s going to be a civil war.” You heard it all the time in the old Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. People fretted about it constantly in South Africa in 1994. They have been worrying about it in Lebanon for the past year. Now they’re predicting it for Pakistan — but nine times out of 10, the forecast is false.
The Soviet Union broke up with remarkably little violence, although there were some nasty little wars in various non-Russian republics down south. Apartheid’s end in South Africa was astonishingly non-violent, given all that had gone before. There was a ghastly civil war in Lebanon in the late ’70s and ’80s, but the odds are better than even that there will not be another. And there probably won’t be a disaster in Pakistan either.
“We are very scared,” Sen. Enver Baig of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party told the Guardian last week. “If we don’t mend our ways, it could spell the end of the country. The Islamists have sleeper cells in every city. We could have a civil war.” And if the “Islamists” won that civil war, then people with a worldview not dissimilar to Osama bin Laden’s would control a country with 165 million people, an army of 600,000 men, and an estimated 50 nuclear weapons.
But the civil war hasn’t happened yet, and it may never come to that. In fact, there are as many hopeful signs as frightening ones in the current turmoil in Pakistan, although it is getting hard to read the tea leaves.
Pakistan is certainly becoming unstable. The government has effectively lost control in the tribal belt along the frontier with Afghanistan, which is increasingly dominated by pro-Taliban militants. The weeklong siege of radical Islamists holed up in the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the capital, in mid-July culminated in the deaths of over a hundred militants and soldiers.
The military dictator who has ruled Pakistan since 1999, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is a living incarnation of the phrase “one-bullet regime”: He has already survived four assassination attempts. More than 200 Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died in terrorist attacks since the Red Mosque incident, and the alarmists are predicting civil war and an Islamist takeover.
On the other hand, there is a thriving free press in Pakistan, including independent television stations that actually report the news. The economy has been growing fast in recent years, and at least a bit of the new prosperity is trickling down to the impoverished majority.
Musharraf is the fourth general to seize power in Pakistan’s 60-year history, but the country always returns to civilian rule in the end. And late last month Pakistan’s supreme court, in an act of defiance against military rule, threw out Musharraf’s accusations of corruption against the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
The charges were fabricated to ensure that the chief justice did not interfere with the general’s plans for another five-year presidential term. (He planned to have himself re-appointed by very same national and regional assemblies, chosen in rigged elections in 2002, that obediently voted to appoint him five years ago — without any new election to renew their membership.) What actually happened, however, was that the charges turned Chaudhry into a national hero and a focus for resistance to the continuation of thinly disguised military rule.
There is a good chance that this crisis could end in a restoration of civilian democracy in Pakistan: That is how all three previous bouts of military rule ended. The fanatics and the extremists dominate the sparsely populated areas along the Afghan frontier because the population there is identical to the Pashtun across the border who are the main base of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have been radicalized by 28 years of foreign occupation and civil war in that country. But the vast majority of Pakistanis live down in the flat, fertile lands along the rivers, and what they want is not martyrdom but peace, justice and prosperity.
They stand a better chance of getting those things if democracy returns, even if previous intervals of democracy in Pakistan have usually ended in massive corruption and paralysis as the political class fought over the spoils. Musharraf is probably on the way out unless he declares martial law under the pretext of fighting the Islamists — and it is not certain that the army would follow him if he did.
So he is trying for fake democratization. Twice, in January and again last month, he has met secretly in Abu Dhabi with Benazir Bhutto, the exiled head of the largest opposition party, trying to make a deal that would let her return as prime minister (for the third time) but leave him as president. That would be a big mistake on Bhutto’s part, but it wouldn’t be the first.
Despite the highly publicized violence in Pakistan, there is little chance that it will fall under Taliban-style rule. There is perhaps a one-in-three probability that Musharraf will cut a deal with Bhutto that leaves him in power for a while, but that wouldn’t really end the crisis. And the odds on a return to real democracy within the year are probably better than even.
It would be nice if Pakistan’s fractious and venal politicians could make it work this time.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.