Wednesday, August 22, 2007

International: Pakistan, ripe for revolution

It is always dangerous to make political predictions, and never more so than when one considers rare events like revolutions. Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that revolution is coming to Pakistan, and it may be coming soon.

Pakistan today bears an uncanny resemblence to Iran in the 1970s. In those days, Iran was ruled by an unpopular autocrat, the Shah Pahlavi, who so alienated his people that he was replaced by an Islamic leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, Pakistan is ruled by an unpopular autocrat, General Musharraf, and is powerfully resisted by local Islamists.

The United States gave significant military and econmoic aid to the Shah of Iran because it wanted Iran's help in facing down its greatest military threat of the time, the Soviet Union. Iranians felt like they were being used as a pawn of the US, and Islamist leaders used this resentment to unite the Iranian opposition. Today, the US gives enormous aid to Pakistan because it wants Musharraf's help in facing down its current military bete noire, Al Qaeda. Predictably, this US support to Musharraf's regime is resented by Pakistanis, and Islamist leaders are using this resentment to give common goals to the opposition.

The Shah's Iran was an infamously corrupt and wasteful regime. Musharraf's regime is so corrupt that it ranks 142 out of 163 on the Transparency International's corruption index, tied with such countries as Angola, Nigeria, and just a fraction ahead of Iraq. This endemic corruption and regime failure created, in Iran, such widespread frustration that eventually the Iranian military withdrew its support for the Shah. For the moment, Musharraf remains in uniform as the head of the military -- and no wonder he is so reluctant to step down from the post.

The parallel between the Shah's Iran and Musharraf's Pakistan is deep but not universal; it should not be taken too far. There are big differences between the two, not least the importance of oil in Iran's economy and its absence in Pakistan's. Moreover, even a perfect analogy would leave room for individual choice and actions; perhaps there is no Pakistani equivalent to the Ayatollah. Still, the parallels are sufficiently striking that we ought to pay attention to at least one key factor in the coming months.

Revolutions are often violent affairs, but they are not decided on the battlefield. They are decided politically, which is why the army is so crucial; if Musharraf loses moral and political legitimacy, the military may withdraw its support, and the regime will fall. When considering the future of Musharraf's regime -- and, by extention, the future of the fight against Al Qaeda -- all eyes should be on Pakistan's military.

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