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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 38

Pentagon’s Loss

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


[(With the exit of President Pervez Musharraf from the political scene of Pakistan following his resignation in August 2008 we are reproducing N.C.’s memorable editorial, written precisely 20 years ago in August 1988, after the accidental death of President Zia-ul-Haq that month.)]

With the passing away of President Zia-ul- Haq, Pakistan enters a new phase in its chequered political career. His death is also bound to bring about a significant shift in the mosaic of regional politics in South Asia.

For eleven long years, General Zia ruled over Pakistan—the longest that any personality, civil or military, has held power in that country. As a military dictator, General Zia lacked legitimacy in the eyes of an overwhelming segment of public opinion in his own country but he displayed consummate craftsmanship as an astute political figure in the sphere of international diplomacy.

Playing on the so-called strategic imperatives of the US foreign policy, General Zia could skillfully extract maximum aid, both economic and military, from Washington. If Pakistan became the main base of operation for the Afghan mujahideen, it exploited this role to become the major beneficiary of the US arms bounty in consequence.

Son of a maulvi attached to the Army, General Zia throughout kept up his links with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which provided the mainstay of his political support when he engineered in 1977 the coup against Bhutto, who had chosen him as his trusted commander-in-chief superseding the claims of several Generals senior to him.

Unlike Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who on becoming President had divested himself of the post of the Army Chief, General Zia never gave up his position as the supremo of the Army. Throughout he maintained his iron grip over the armed forces operating through a coterie of trusted men among whom the only civilian was Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who has now taken over the reins on the sudden demise of President Zia.

In his death the US has lost one of its most trusted stooges in this part of the world. After the fall of the Shahenshah of Iran, it is Pakistan under President Zia which has provided the political and strategic foothold for Washington in South and South-West Asia. In the formation of the US Central Command, in working out its strategic thrust in the Persian Gulf area, in coordinating the US naval presence in the region with ground support for any eventuality, General Zia emerged as an indispensable factor in the Pentagon’s scheme of things. Under President Zia, Pakistan provided military advisers to a large number of Arab countries. Two divisions of troops were until recently engaged in the service of the Saudi Arabian regime. Of all the key figures in Pakistan it was General Zia who held out till the end against the signing of the Geneva accords on Afghanistan, and even after Pakistan was compelled to sign the accords, it was General Zia who was in the forefront in violating its provisions with impunity. The mujahideen caucus has lost one of its protectors with the death of Zia-ul-Haq.

Because of the key position that General Zia held in the Pentagon’s list of priorities, there was never a hold-up of US arms aid to Pakistan during his regime despite the clamour in the US Congress for a democratic order in that country. Even his policy for the acquisition of nuclear weapons did not come in the way of Pakistan getting abundance of US aid. It is an amazing case of poetic justice that the US Ambassador should lose his life along with General Zia in an aircraft gifted by the US.

President Zia played striking histrionics in his relations with India. His education at the Doon and St Stephens, his hi-fi passion for watching cricket, his generous hospitality to mediamen and Sikh pilgrims from India—all these bear testimony to his superb public relations exercise. One of his last stunts was to bestow special honours on Morarji Desai while backing Khalistani terrorists in Punjab. At the same time, General Zia fought shy of signing a friendship treaty that India offered and he never hesitated to provide hospitality to promoters of Khalistan and asylum for extremist terrorists carrying on their dastardly acts in Punjab.

General Zia-ul-Haq could never countenance a democratic set-up in Pakistan. Even the truncated one he set up with Junejo as the Prime Minister was snuffed out earlier this year. His campaign for Islamisation was meant as an antidote to democratic urges in different parts of Pakistan.

There is no question that the removal from the scene of this hatchet-man of democracy will open up new possibilities which no military junta will find it easy to muzzle. The coming weeks and months will be the testing time for the Generals as well as the democratic forces in Pakistan.

(Mainstream, August 20, 1988)

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