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Washington Stirs a Witch’s Brew in Pakistan

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

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Plans by President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to attack Iran have been at least temporarily derailed by the mounting crisis in Pakistan. Not only is this important South Asia nation a key US ally in its conflict with anti-western Muslim groups (aka "the war of terror"), the US also planned to use three Pakistani air bases it now controls to launch air attacks against Iran.

I’ve been in regular contact with former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She calls the situation "grim." On Friday, she was temporarily put under house arrest, preventing her from leading a mass demonstration in Islamabad. On Tuesday, she plans to lead a mass protest march from Lahore, to which she flew over the weekend, to Islamabad, mobilizing her party faithful and challenging the Musharraf regime.

Another important Pakistani party, Jamiat Islami, is also threatening mass demonstrations. Bhutto and other opposition leaders are calling on Musharraf to resign as military chief and run in fair, internationally supervised elections.

Bhutto tells me she may face another attempt to kill her. She accuses allies of President-General Pervez Musharraf of trying to assassinate her in the October 18th bombing in Karachi that that killed or wounded hundreds.

Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party commands broad popular support, particularly among the poor and illiterate. But her attempt to unleash mass demonstrations has so far been thwarted by violent police repression against her supporters and the arrest of her political allies.

Musharraf’s imposition of martial law, arrest of Supreme Court justices who were going to rule illegal his continued role as commander-in-chief and president, arrest of other opposition figures and muzzling the formerly feisty media have proven most embarrassing to the Bush Administration which claims to be an apostle of democracy. Bush, who claims to have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in order to bring them the light of democracy, must continue supporting Pakistan’s military dictator or see his war in Afghanistan collapse.

So, under heavy pressure from Washington, Musharraf agreed to hold elections on 15 January and release some jailed opponents. Washington hailed Musharraf. In reality, however, it was another cynical ploy. Every election Musharraf has held since seizing power in 1999 has been rigged. Does anyone really believe there will be fair elections in Pakistan under martial law or with the media gagged?

Musharraf, who commands less than 8% popular support, and is widely hated as an American stooge, knows he would lose any honest election. What he plans are the same kind of farcical "democratic elections" held by the US-backed military dictatorships of Egypt and Algeria.

My Pakistani sources report growing unrest in the 619,000-man armed forces. Senior commanders, recently promoted by Musharraf after pre-approval by Washington, still support him. But they are increasingly dismayed by the threat of a clash with civilians. Many senior officers fear their continued support of Musharraf is turning the public against the armed forces and injuring its good name.

Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the newly named vice chief of staff, could be Pakistan’s next strongman. If Musharraf is overthrown, killed or driven from office, Washington has chosen Gen. Kiyani as its Plan B, either with or without Benazir Bhutto. Kiyani has close links to the US and received part of his military training there.

If Musharraf does finally resign his command, Kiyani will control the military. Musharraf will be left without a power base — or perhaps even army protection.

Benazir Bhutto tells me pro-Taliban tribesmen and Uzbek allies in Northwest Frontier Province on the Afghan border are rapidly taking over cities and towns. Army troops ordered to attack them have surrendered or refused to fire. The Swat Valley, which is well inside Pakistan, fell to Islamists two weeks ago.

This could mark the beginning of a rebellion in the ranks. The loyalty of the army’s senior officers has been rented by billions of dollars of secret aid the CIA has funneled through Musharraf. Those who could not be bought were ousted, including Pakistan’s most capable military men.

Official post-9/11 US aid to Pakistan is $10.6 billion, but "black" payments are many times higher. Some reports put them at $1 billion monthly. These mammoth payoffs have not trickled down to the mid and lower ranks. They have vanished into the pockets of the military brass and senior officials. Pakistan’s armed forces are still woefully deficient in modern arms.

Gen. Hamid Gul, former director general of Pakistan’s intelligence service, ISI, and an old friend from the 1980′s Afghan War, has also been arrested. He kept accusing Musharraf of selling out Pakistan’s national interests in return for cash and US support for his dictatorship — and of dishonoring the military. Gen. Gul still has many friends in the army and ISI. He shouted what many officers whisper.

In lauding Musharraf, President Bush made no mention of the dictator’s disgraceful firing of Supreme Court justices who were about to declare Mush’s ongoing rule violated the constitution. Nor has Bush or the US Congress issued any demands that the exiled former PM Nawaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan’s other major political party, the Muslim League, be allowed to return to contest elections.

So much for supporting democracy. In the name of fighting extremism, Musharraf has jailed or intimidated nearly all of Pakistan’s political moderates.

In Washington’s wrongheaded view, it’s either Mush or the mullahs. Or if Musharraf falters, then it’s Bhutto or Gen. Kiyani.

As of this writing, Bhutto still has not decided whether to collaborate with Musharraf or try to force a bloody confrontation with him, though she suggests talks are off. Many of her friends and supporters are appalled she would make a shady, backroom deal with the military dictator. Gen. Kiyani remains an unknown.

Anyone who still wonders why so many people in the Muslim World hate the west needs look no further than Pakistan, where, in the name of "democracy" and "counter-terrorism" Washington and London are stirring a witches’ brew of dictatorship, intrigue and violence.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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