In 1961 I went to Spain to visit my godfather, Count Ilyas Toptani, who had married the Duchess of Valencia. This fierce, regal women, was a leader of the Carlists, Spain's royalist party. They were in residence at one of the Countess' castles, this one in Avila, surrounded by an entourage of priests, duenas, liveried servants and assorted flunkies. It was all wonderfully medieval.
The duchess and fellow Carlists had attempted a coup against Spain's dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco. They seized Madrid airport, and waited for Spain's exiled king, Don Juan, to fly in from Portugal. But Don Juan got cold feet and returned to Lisbon, claiming bad weather.
The Duchess grabbed the air controller's microphone, according to Count Toptani, and furiously yelled at the king, `Your majesty, a king should die for his country, not a country for its king!' Soon after, she was imprisoned.
I mention this piquant story because today another military ruler, Pakistan's President-General Pervez Musharraf, seems prepared to see his nation destroyed rather than lose his grip on power.
Pakistan has been convulsed for months by riots and demonstrations calling for the ouster of Musharraf and his cronies. Long simmering opposition to Musharraf's dictatorship erupted into an explosion after his firing of Pakistan's courageous Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was blocking the president's efforts to get himself re-elected in violation of the constitution and investigating corruption in government circles and the disappearance of hundreds of people arrested on flimsy charges of terrorism.
Pakistanis are fed up with Musharraf's war against Pashtun tribes in Pakistan's supposedly autonomous tribal territories, and against rebellious tribes in Baluchistan. Both operations are believed to have been launched at the urging of the president's patrons in Washington.
There is also widespread anger against Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, for bowing to US pressure and abandoning Pakistan's strategic interests in Afghanistan and allowing the US to use Pakistan as a base for operations against Afghanistan. Most Pakistanis are enraged by what many call Musharraf's betrayal of the struggle to free the Vale of Kashmir from Indian rule, long regarded as Pakistan's most sacred cause.
Hailed by Washington as a `democratic statesman,' Musharraf has arrested and jailed thousands of people without trial. Many have been tortured. Elections are crudely rigged, legislators and judges bribed, and most of the army and intelligence service's most capable, patriotic officers, were replaced at Washington's demand by compliant yes-men untainted by Islam. Now, Musharraf's security forces are intimidating Pakistan's free press, one of its few remaining active democratic institutions.
What an irony that while Washington claims to be waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan to bring democracy, it is stoutly upholding Pakistan's military dictatorship.
Some Pakistani critics keep reminding me of my past support and admiration for former military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq. True enough. I knew and indeed greatly admired Zia. After interviewing Musharraf in 1999, I walked away, shaking my head and saying to myself, `Musharraf, you are no Zia!'
President Zia ul-Haq was a great leader, a true Pakistani patriot who prevented a Soviet invasion of Pakistan, won the war in Afghanistan, and advanced his nation's strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. He was courageous, tough as steel, and refused to be intimidated by anyone. He was wrong to execute Pakistan's deposed leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but he still was a giant compared to Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf outraged his countrymen by obsequiously kow-towing to foreign demands while neglecting Pakistan's needs. Turning Pakistan into Washington's sepoy(native soldier) in exchange for billions in overt and hundreds of millions more in secret CIA stipends used to rent loyalty to the military regime has shamed many Pakistanis and further enflamed anti-western groups in this important nation of 162.5 million.
Now, thanks in part to Musharraf's wrongheaded policies over Afghanistan, the conflict there is starting to lap across Pakistan's Northwest Frontier. Pakistan is facing one of the gravest national crises since its creation in 1947 as a beacon of honest, democratic government for the Muslim World. Sixty years later, Pakistan has become a poster child for self-serving, undemocratic government that often does not even represent the best interests of the nation.
The Bush Administration keeps patting Musharraf on the back as unrest worsens and Pakistan heads toward a potential explosion that could destabilize the entire region and leave US and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan cut off and vulnerable. The west cannot afford to let Pakistan melt-down.
Quickly restoring democratic government is the obvious answer. Pakistan's banned opposition leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, must be allowed to return and wage free elections. While burdened by a lot of negative baggage from her previous stints as prime minister, Miss Bhutto still appears as the most effective antidote to the current military regime and deserves strong western support. One hopes that recent rumors of a Benazir-Musharraf deal are no more than idle bazaar chatter. If they are true, then she will become as discredited as Musharraf.
Washington needs to press Musharraf to retire as armed forces chief. Musharraf is dragging down Pakistan with his unpopular, isolated regime. If he is as popular as he claims, let him run for office as a fair, democratic politician.
Time is fast running out. A nuclear-armed Pakistan facing regional, tribal and ethnic unrest or conflict is a hugely dangerous threat demanding urgent action. Pakistan must not be sacrificed for the sake of its leader.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2007.