LONDON — The dancing in the streets in Pakistan after the latest political crisis ended may have been overdone, but the relief was genuine. Americans should be dancing in the streets, too, because what has happened in Pakistan will probably force the United States to abandon its foolish anti-Pashtun war in Afghanistan before we get much older. But since the Obama administration doesn’t yet realize that it should stop that war, there were no celebrations in Washington.
It was pressure from Washington, as well as from the Pakistani army, that forced President Asif Ali Zardari to back down. Washington did that to save Zardari from his own folly, for it still wants his loyal support in its war in Afghanistan, but he hasn’t been saved for long.
Zardari’s sole claim to fame is that he married Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan and hereditary leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). After she was assassinated in December 2007, he inherited the party leadership, became prime minister on a sympathy vote in the ensuing election, and promoted himself to president in September.
Zardari’s reputation for corruption is unparalleled, and his political skills are minimal. Both these aspects of his character featured prominently in the recent crisis, which centered on Zardari’s refusal to re-appoint former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, dismissed by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Chaudhry’s determination to enforce the law despite the Musharraf regime’s corruption and contempt for the constitution became a rallying point for civilians demanding a return to democracy. His return to the Supreme Court was one of the founding principles of the coalition between Zardari’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N) that took control when Musharraf finally surrendered power — but it didn’t happen.
Zardari simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid that once Chaudhry was back at the Supreme Court, he would cancel the amnesty that had let Benazir Bhutto and him return from exile in 2007. He may have been right, since the amnesty (on various corruption charges) was part of a deal in which the U.S. was trying to prop up its favorite Pakistani general, Musharraf, with a pro-American civilian government led by Benazir.
It might have worked if she had lived, but she didn’t. Zardari took over the PPP, Musharraf was finally forced out — and then the coalition between the PPP and Sharif’s PML-N foundered last May over Zardari’s refusal to reappoint Chief Justice Chaudhry.
Just business as usual in Pakistani politics, but then the country’s lawyers started staging daily demonstrations on Chaudhry’s behalf. Zardari really overstepped the bounds last month when he got the tame Supreme Court to rule that neither Nawaz Sharif nor his brother Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province, could hold elective office. He placed Punjab under central government rule, briefly closed down two independent TV stations, and alienated just about everybody.
The protests got bigger and bigger, the army and the U.S. told him to back down, and eventually he did. Chaudhry is back as the head of the Supreme Court, and the reins of government will probably pass to Nawaz Sharif within a year. So what?
It’s good that Pakistanis have chosen democracy and the rule of law, even knowing how badly they have been deceived and disappointed by their politicians in the past. But there is something bigger going on here. A conservative, nationalist consensus is emerging that promises to transform Pakistani politics — and to reject the country’s role as America’s obedient ally in the “war on terror.”
Almost nobody in Washington understands that the U.S. is at war with the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Taliban are an almost exclusively Pashtun organization, and ALL the Pashtun-majority provinces in Afghanistan are in revolt against the foreign occupation, while all of the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara-majority provinces are at peace. The U.S. allied itself with the other minorities to drive the Taliban from power in 2001, but that meant driving the Pashtuns from power, and they are fighting to regain their share.
Every Pakistani understands this, because most of the world’s Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side of the border. Pakistan’s Pashtuns have been radicalized by the war against their brothers in Afghanistan, to the point where Taliban values now dominate in the western fifth of Pakistan as well. Music has been silenced, barbers no longer dare to shave men’s beards, and 140 girls’ schools have been blown up or burned down.
Taliban-style terrorist attacks in the rest of Pakistan are now an almost daily event, and lurking somewhere just below the horizon is the possibility of a unified, Islamist-ruled Pashtun state that would destroy the unity of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistanis will not let that happen, so the country’s acquiescence in the U.S. “war on terror” under both Musharraf and Zardari, which has even extended in the past two years to tacit permission for American Predator drones to kill people in the Pashtun parts of Pakistan, is coming to an end.
Without Pakistan’s support, the Western war in Afghanistan will have to stop — and high time, too.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.