Within minutes of learning of a threat to public safety, more than 300 armed policemen — among them commandos of the elite Anti-Terrorist Squad, the pride of Pakistani police — had surrounded and violently subdued the would-be rebels. They acted swiftly and efficiently. Forty-eight young men were captured and whisked away to prison, where, under the anti-terrorism laws in force since the imposition of martial law in the country, they could be kept for as long as was deemed necessary. The reason for the imposition of martial law was to increase the ability of law enforcement agencies to take quick action, and the efficiency of this operation meant that the decision had been right: The state had won, its opponents crushed. The war on terror was back on track.
Except: Those arrested had nothing to do with terrorism. They were students of local schools — secular institutions that regularly send graduates to colleges like Yale — and they had peacefully gathered after school to protest against martial rule in the country. Their mouths taped shut in protest, they held placards with their demands. Their demands: independence of judiciary, freedom of expression, restoration of democracy and reinstatement of the country’s constitution along with the fundamental human rights enshrined within it.
Apparently, that is too much to ask. Since the imposition of “a state of emergency” (euphemism for absolute martial law) in Pakistan on Nov. 3, thousands of ordinary citizens — lawyers, judges, journalists, intellectuals and students — have been arrested for demanding basic human rights. Many have been released, the regime trumpets, but many more are still being held on baseless charges, and in some cases without any charges filed at all. And then there is the matter of hundreds of people who have been missing for months (and some for years) after having been picked up by intelligence agencies in faux counter-terrorism operations. All this while, the government has failed to check the real threat to Pakistan and the rest of the world: the militancy brewing in the tribal areas on the Afghan border.
Musharraf’s Pakistan is a case study in the sheer hypocrisy of Bush’s diplomacy. While using democracy as an excuse to go to war against a hostile dictator in Iraq, the current American administration has labeled Pakistan’s dictator “an indispensable ally” and propped up his regime by billions of dollars in military aid. Up until the imposition of absolute rule in Pakistan, Bush administration officials labeled Musharraf’s clampdown on opposition “an internal matter,” and even after the imposition of absolute rule in Pakistan, their reaction has been little more than a slap on the wrist.
By demanding that Musharraf give up his post as the head of the military to his handpicked successor before taking oath as president — a demand that he fulfilled yesterday — the Bush administration has demanded merely a cosmetic change. The real issue is not whether Musharraf wears a military uniform to work, but whether his power can be checked by any institution of the state. Musharraf has amended the constitution to give himself special powers and has arrested all the independent judges who challenged him. By replacing them with his cronies, he has effectively ended any checks to his power, and the fact that the Bush administration has conveniently chosen to ignore this in its demands to Musharraf speaks of its duplicity.
However, the Bush administration has not been merely hypocritical in supporting dictatorship in Pakistan; it has also been dangerously naive. The administration has remained convinced by Musharraf’s claim that his absolute rule is the best bet for combating terrorism in Pakistan, that a democratic Pakistan will fall to rising Islamism and, ultimately, terrorism. This claim could not be farther from the truth.
While it is true that some parts of Pakistani society have had a dangerous flirtation with extremist Islam, they have always existed outside the mainstream political process, which has tended to remain moderate. Pakistan’s is a vibrant and progressive political system: The country saw (and almost elected, save election-rigging by another American-backed dictator) its first major female candidate for president when Hillary Clinton was still in high school. By suppressing moderate and secular democratic opposition, and bypassing the political process, the current regime has only served to strengthen extremist forces. As a result, the threat of terrorism faced by Americans and Pakistanis alike is greater today than it was ever before primarily because of the current American administration’s decision to cast its weight behind a dictator instead of civil society and democratic institutions.
This decision is proven wrong every day in Pakistan when thousands of citizens gather peacefully to defy Bush’s indispensable dictator while, at the same time, opposing extremism. Today, Pakistan will see the largest youth-led protests in recent history: Coordinated student rallies are planned in three cities across the country. Some of us may get arrested, some injured and some may even disappear.
But in the struggle for freedom for our countrymen, these are risks we have to be willing to take. Will we succeed? The answer may just lie in how indispensable a cowardly dictator is for the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Samar Abbas Kazmi, a 2006 graduate of Yale College, is a former president of Yalies for Pakistan and a founding member of the Pakistan Youth Alliance.