NS Profile - Pakistani dictators

Musharraf swapped his uniform for a turban - the latest in a long line of generals who pretend to be

Pakistan's 54-year-old history has been a series of lengthy duels between general and politician, with civil servants acting as the seconds of both parties. The statistics reveal the winner. Unelected bureaucrats and politicians ran Pakistan for 11 years, the army has ruled the country for 28 years and elected representatives have been in power for 15 years. It is a dismal record. Pakistan's generals have remained loyal to the institution of the army rather than to abstract ideas such as democracy or Islam.

The army prides itself on being a unifying power, but, in reality, it has always been a force of disintegration. Pakistan's first military coup, in October 1958, backed by the United States, sought to pre-empt the country's first general election amid fears that political parties hostile to the US security alliance might win a substantial majority in parliament. The first dictator, General Ayub Khan, was a jovial, Sandhurst-trained officer, secular in outlook, fond of his drink and used to obeying orders. In the days of the Raj, he was happy to salute Lord Mountbatten and Field Marshal Auchinleck. In the late Fifties, he was observed happily tugging away at his forelock in the presence of Horace Hildreth, the US ambassador to Pakistan.

Ayub could also think for himself. After all, nobody could have suggested that he say (as he did): "We must understand that democracy cannot work in a hot climate. To have democracy we must have a cold climate like Britain." This was misread by a leader writer of the New York Times in 1958, who reported that Ayub had "stated clearly that what he proposed and wished to do is establish in due course a fine, honest and democratic government". Ayub had said nothing of the sort. He was a dictator who imprisoned and tortured dissidents, destroyed the free press and rigged referendums and elections. He created a civilian facade for himself but, while some western journalists were deceived (including, alas, Kingsley Martin, then the NS editor), every Pakistani citizen knew that the army was in total control.

General Ayub presided over a lopsided capitalist development that ignored the needs of the majority - the Bengalis in the eastern province, then known as East Pakistan. He was removed from power by a six-month popular uprising led by students and supported by the workers. This was the first time that a mass movement had threatened all the vested interests in the country. Ayub "resigned"and was replaced by General Yahya Khan, who immediately announced that the country's long-postponed general election would take place in January 1970.

Yahya (his name means fuck-fuck in Lahori Punjabi) was a merry old soul, interested largely in alcohol and fornication. His favourite call-girl was nicknamed "General Rani". The elections took place on schedule. The Bengali province elected the nationalist Awami League to power. The bulk of the army and the 22 families that controlled 80 per cent of the wealth belonged to West Pakistan, most of which was won by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. General Fuck-Fuck refused to accept the Bengali victory and declared war on the majority of Pakistan. While East Pakistan was being raped, General Fuck-Fuck was observed dancing naked on the deserted streets of Peshawar pursued by his loyal "General Rani".

The desperate Bengali leaders appealed to New Delhi for support and Indira Gandhi dispatched her armies to secure the independence of Bangladesh. The Pakistani expeditionary force surrendered without a battle. It was a total humiliation. The first period of military rule had led to the break-up of Pakistan.

In 1972, Bhutto became the leader of a truncated Pakistan. He promised much but delivered little. He dismissed the entire high command and appointed General Zia ul-Haq, a clever, Uriah Heepish officer, as chief of staff. In 1977, Bhutto's refusal to cancel the nuclear project led to his overthrow and a US-sponsored coup saw Zia take control. Unlike his military predecessor, Zia pledged elections within 90 days. Bhutto was first arrested and then released, but a demonstration of 500,000 people in Lahore sealed his fate. He was accused of conspiracy to murder, tried and, after a four-to-three verdict in the supreme court, hanged in 1979.

Zia came out as a hard-core Islamist, sympathetic to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and determined to "Islamise" Pakistan. Saudi petro-dollars flowed in, accompanied by preachers. Public floggings and hangings became commonplace. Pakistan's culture was brutalised. It has not yet recovered.

A pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan transformed the fortune of Pakistan's squalid military dictator. He now became a much-desired friend of the west. Backed by the US Defence Intelligence Agency, Zia oversaw the creation of the monster that became the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the principal conduit for drugs, arms and money to supply the mujahedin fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. The Afghan veterans who form the core of al-Qaeda were also supplied by the ISI. Simultaneously, the Zia regime created and armed the religious fundamentalist groups that are creating mayhem in Pakistan and India today.

Ayub had been removed from below. Zia had to be removed from above. He was assassinated in 1989 when his plane (also carrying the US ambassador, Arnold Raphael) exploded. Most of the country celebrated. The assassins were never uncovered. Mrs Zia said that her husband had been killed "by his own" - the army.

Ten years of civilian rule followed, but neither Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, nor Zia's protege, Nawaz Sharif, showed any ability to govern. Patronage and corruption on a gigantic scale were the hallmarks of their regimes. However, Sharif's attempt to get rid of General Pervez Musharraf (who had refused to take bribes) backfired. The general took power in October 1999 against the will of the US embassy (a first in Pakistani history) and Nawaz Sharif was arrested and then sent into exile in Saudi Arabia. The people, disgusted with politicians, were prepared to give this general a chance.

Musharraf pledged an early return to democracy, but the basic pattern remained the same. The events of 11 September made the general a desirable ally. But his job was more difficult than his predecessor's. Musharraf had to unravel the only victory ever won by his army: the Taliban takeover of Kabul. This has created severe tensions inside an army whose discipline has never broken. The ISI is split, with hardline Islamists seeking revenge by trying to provoke a war with India and threatening Musharraf's life. What good is a military dictator who cannot even restore law and order?

Meanwhile, Musharraf, like Zia and Ayub before him, took off his uniform, dressed himself in native gear, replete with an unconvincing turban, and launched his political career at a "public" rally which consisted of peasant-serfs bussed in to a large field by a friendly landlord in Sind. A rigged referendum provided a bogus legitimacy. Nothing changes in Pakistan.

The current situation is unpredictable. Having lost Kabul, the generals are reluctant to retreat on Kashmir. On this front Musharraf is a hardliner. Islamabad's aim is to internationalise the conflict and encourage a "humanitarian intervention". New Delhi argues, with some logic, that if the US has the right to change regimes in the hunt for terrorists, why shouldn't India? The generals in Pakistan respond with nuclear threats.

Despite the tensions on the Indo-Pakistan border, as long as there are US troops and other personnel on Pakistani soil an Indian strike is unlikely and a nuclear exchange even more improbable. The dispute cannot be resolved if our gaze concentrates exclusively on Kashmir. What is needed is a wide-ranging economic and political settlement, whose benefits would include a shared sovereignty for Kashmir. A South Asian union - modelled partially on the European Union and including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka - could help the region as a whole. While the founding states would preserve their sovereignty, a soft border between them could provide genuine autonomy for Kashmir, which could also be extended to the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka. The Kashmiris would be prepared to forgo their own army and foreign policy if a shared sovereignty were possible.

Most citizens of South Asia want a durable peace. Neither India nor Pakistan can afford this weaponry. Both would benefit hugely if the billions spent on nuclear arms were used to build schools and hospitals and provide clean water in the villages. Trade deals with China and the Far East could lift the whole of South Asia. As the two armies confront each other, such a solution appears utopian. In fact, it is the only realistic way forward.

Tariq Ali's Clash of Fundamentalisms is published by Verso contains a detailed history of Kashmir