The Global War on Terror as Experienced Around the World

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[Republished at PFP with express Agence Global permission.] 
Fifteen months after the Thai military deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister, it tightens its grip on power. And, not surprisingly, Thailand is about to come under an anti-terrorist law -- the Internal Security Act (ISA) -- modeled on the US Homeland Security and PATRIOT acts.

Bush's Global War on Terror in Thailand
by Noy Thrupkaew

More than a year after tanks trundled through downtown Bangkok, it looks like the generals intend to stay. The military deposed democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19, 2006, and promised a slew of changes -- economic reforms, a crackdown on corruption and a resolution to the insurgency in the predominantly Muslim southern provinces. For this, and for a change of pace from the corporate strongman tactics of Thaksin, the crowds came out in droves, offering food and flowers, and mugging for photos next to soldiers and their tanks.

The honeymoon is over, though. The economy is stagnant, the insurgency continues and the military is becoming more deeply entrenched every day ahead of national elections on December 23. Not content with expanding their budget from 86 billion baht before the coup to 143 billion now, the generals have issued a spate of bills targeting free speech and the right to assembly, including cybercrime and film censorship. Most troubling, the military produced a draft of an Internal Security Act (ISA) that would allow it to command government officials "not to perform any act or to perform any act" that would affect internal security. Human Rights Watch has criticized this provision as a blank check that could be used to overrule existing laws and human rights protections. The executors of ISA could also act as criminal investigators and sentence those deemed a threat to national security to "re-education camps" for up to six months. They can order curfews, prohibit demonstrations and public gatherings should they give rise to "public disorder" and suspend or alter communications and transportation systems. The military- and law-enforcement-based Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC), charged with overseeing the act, could seize state agencies and would be exempt from prosecution under the Administrative Court, the highest court to oversee human rights violations.

ISA is well on its way to becoming law. It passed its first reading by the National Legislative Assembly and awaits a committee review and a final vote -- a process that the government seems keen to fast-track ahead of the December elections.

The alleged motivation behind ISA? National security -- and terrorism. "This law could help us prevent any future acts of terrorism," said a senior official in the coup government's Council on National Security, who spoke on condition of anonymity. As he envisioned it, the law could also help update outmoded security systems, deal with drugs and arms trading on the borders and with ongoing violence in the south. But the law's critics, including more than 100 academics who signed a petition protesting ISA, see it as old-fashioned Thai military control dressed up in the rhetoric of security and counterterrorism. They worry that ISA could be used to suppress dissent.

At a meeting with anti-ISA signatories, government officials stated that the draft bill is inspired by the US Homeland Security and Patriot acts. That Thailand would follow in US footsteps is not surprising, considering that the countries are economic and strategic allies -- close enough for Thailand to become home to a US "black site," a covert prison that was closed down in 2003 after its existence became public.

According to analysis by the International Consortium of Jurists, ISA draws on the emergency decree that Thaksin declared for the southern border provinces in 2005, martial law and the ISOC structure set up by Thailand's old anti-communist act, which was in effect from 1952 to 1979. The ISA, however, would transcend the time and area limitations of the emergency decree and martial law and expand the powers of ISOC. As Naruemon Thabchumphon, an academic who circulated the petition against the act, said, "If passed, this law will give the military unlimited time and area to expand their security system. The whole kingdom of Thailand will be under a permanent state of emergency."

The new cybercrime law also contains language about terrorism and national security -- and was recently used in the secret arrest of two bloggers for their outspoken remarks about the much revered monarchy. The bloggers were eventually released without being charged but retain criminal records and could be charged with cybercrime violations up to ten years in the future. In addition, more than 50,000 websites, many including content critical of the coup generals, are blocked by the government, and individual Internet service providers, who view the cybercrime law as allowing them free rein to censor, block even more sites.

One of the most ambitious pieces of recent proposed legislation, ISA would grant the ISOC "enormous power in terms of controlling political activities," according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Chulalongkorn University security specialist and a foreign affairs adviser to the coup's Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont. "The ISOC can bypass normal due process. That's not unusual even in democratic Western countries -- President Bush has it. But the problem with us is that we need elected officials who can vote on that policy -- and it must be subjected to checks and balances in executive and parliamentary system."

Even if the act faces an elected Parliament, it may pull through anyway, thanks to the military's increased financial muscle and strategic jockeying. In response to public feedback, ISA will appoint the prime minister as commander of the ISOC and position the army head as ISOC deputy commander, instead of its head, as stipulated in the original ISA draft. But in a country where coup generals are beginning to resign from the military to assume top-level positions in the interim civilian government, critics are not hopeful that ISA will protect civil liberties -- or be implemented by a commander who will.

To its critics, ISA is just the latest manifestation of growing authoritarianism in Thailand. "We're living under a coercive democracy," says Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. "This is just the latest sign that we are living in a dark age."

Noy Thrupkaew, a writer based in Thailand, is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect magazine.

Copyright ©2007 The Nation 
A new anti-terrorism law -- mirroring the US Homeland Security Act -- provides Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo 'justification' to persecute the Philippine left -- and reminds of the days of the Marcos dictatorship.

Released: 17 December 2007
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Bush's Global War on Terror in The Philippines
by Luis H. Francia

Politically motivated killings in the Philippines -- the United States' former colony and staunchest ally in Asia -- have swelled since 9/11. According to Karapatan, an umbrella group for various Philippine human rights organizations, close to 900 men and women have been summarily executed since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over in 2001, from disgraced President Joseph Estrada.

Continuing to support Bush's "global war on terror," President Arroyo has ratcheted up her government's pressure on the Philippine left, reviving memories of the Marcos dictatorship and its dirty war against the opposition. Manila knows that as long as it supports the Bush Administration, thereby obtaining economic and military assistance from the United States, it can get away with murder -- literally.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights First have criticized the Arroyo government for failing to prevent -- and even abetting -- such killings. A report to the United Nations by Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, based on a fact-finding visit in February, echoes such criticism. Alston points to two underlying causes for the unchecked murders: the indiscriminate labeling of left-wing groups as "front organizations" for "armed groups whose aim is to destroy democracy" and a government "counter-insurgency strategy" that encourages "the extrajudicial killings of activists and other 'enemies' in certain circumstances." Even the 2006 government-appointed Melo Commission blamed rogue elements in the military for these murders.

Those assassinated include pastors, labor leaders, student activists, farmers, workers and journalists -- at least thirty-two of the last have been killed for reasons directly related to their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks the Philippines as one of the most dangerous places for its profession. As veteran Manila columnist Luis Teodoro writes, "The killings are an integral part of the policy to dismantle whatever else remains of the democratic and populist legacies" brought about by the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos regime.

Last February, the Philippine Congress passed the Human Security Act (HSA) -- a virtual copy of the US Homeland Security Act -- and many expect even more human rights abuses in its wake. By broadening the government's arrest and detention powers, the law seriously undermines civil liberties. With its vague definition of what constitutes terrorism, HSA criminalizes dissent; thus, burning an effigy could be seen as a terrorist act.

Last August, in one of the first instances of the law's application, three visiting women's rights activists who are members of the US-based Gabriela Network (an affiliate of Gabriela Philippines, the nation's largest militant feminist group) were initially prevented from leaving Manila: Annaliza Enrile, a US citizen and professor at the University of Southern California; Judy Mirkinson, also a US citizen; and novelist Ninotchka Rosca, a US permanent resident. Having attended the tenth Women's International Solidarity Affair in the Philippines, the three found themselves on a government watch list because of suspected ties to the Taliban.

Liza Maza, Gabriela's elected representative to the Philippine Congress, calls the charge "utterly preposterous," given Gabriela's politics and the Taliban's medieval, misogynistic bent. Rosca, a political detainee under Marcos, describes such tactics as part of a larger strategy by President Arroyo, whose 2004 re-election was tainted by charges of cheating, to "crush... the left and other advocates of dissent before 2010, which is when her term ends." According to Rosca, Arroyo intends to "push through a constitutional amendment... to enable her to remain in office."

In what was perhaps a dry run, Arroyo declared a month-long state of emergency in early 2006. Arroyo might also be turning a blind eye to the military's excesses to ensure its loyalty, which is tenuous -- as demonstrated by a failed coup in late November.

Not coincidentally, this dirty war was revived shortly before US Special Operations Forces landed in Mindanao in January 2002 -- the first time American troops have been in the Philippines since US bases were shut down in 1992.

Even though the Philippine Constitution forbids the basing of foreign troops on native soil, the US military has kept between 100 and 500 personnel in the Philippines for the past five years. Their presence is justified under the bilateral 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows for joint military exercises and permits the US military to advise and train Filipino troops. The arrangement is supposed to be provisional, but neither government has set an end date.

According to Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank that monitors US military activities, US soldiers have been more active than their technical roles allow. They've been photographed, by Agence France-Presse and Reuters, accompanying Philippine troops in their hunt for the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), alleged to have ties with the Southeast Asian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah. Lee McClenny, US Embassy spokesman in Manila, states that the troops "are not involved in any combat roles but will fire back if fired upon.... Our role is to advise and assist the Philippine military."

Oddly, Philippine military units vastly outnumber the ASG, a small, violent and essentially criminal gang. Besides, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) knows the terrain much better than its US counterparts, having battled the Maoist New People's Army, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for decades without any US advisers on hand. The command structure, however, is corrupt and plagued by persistent accusations that the ASG has paid off higher-ups in the past. It isn't tactical intelligence or foreign advisers that the AFP needs but sweeping reforms.

Equally disturbing, the United States is building installations for its troops, recently awarding a $14.4 million contract to Global Contingency Services of Irving, Texas, to construct these "temporary" structures. In the context of Philippine-US relations, "temporary" is a word fraught with irony. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the US naval fleet steamed into Manila Bay, ostensibly to aid the Filipinos in their revolution against Spain. Instead, the brutal 1899 Philippine-American War ensued when it became clear that the bluecoats were taking over the archipelago. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1990s, they have never left.

Luis H. Francia is the author of Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago (Kaya) and co-editor, with Angel Velasco Shaw, of Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999 (NYU). He teaches at New York University.

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Released: 17 December 2007
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This week, The Nation magazine offers a five-part series on the "global war on terror," and how that is working in five countries throughout the world. Experts such as Negar Azimi on Egypt -- here, below -- offer insight on the real repercussions of George Bush's perpetual war-as-foreign policy. 

For example, on September 11, 2001, Hosni Mubarak reportedly said, "My job just got a little bit easier..."

Bush's Global War on Terror in Egypt
by Negar Azimi

There's a story that when the news arrived that airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned to one of his aides and said, "My job just got a little bit easier." Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Egypt fought its own nasty, brutish "war on terror." As militant groups -- Gama'a Islamiya and Islamic Jihad most prominent among them -- orchestrated attacks on government officials, members of the country's Coptic minority and even foreign tourists, thousands of people were locked up incommunicado in crackdowns across the country. Most of the detained were tortured; others simply disappeared. At the height of the dirty war, some 30,000 suspected militants -- or at least those unlucky enough to be regarded as such -- had been whisked away to Egypt's famously inhospitable prisons. Enter 9/11 and the vaguely defined "war on terror" it inspired. Here was the perfect opportunity for Mubarak -- by then a semibionic man entering his third decade of rule -- to summon up his trusty narrative about fighting terror at all costs, especially in justifying his exceptional powers, not to mention his government's growing crackdowns on its own citizens.

Suddenly the sort of arbitrary detention, trials on flimsy evidence, torture and trampling of freedom of expression and assembly that had long been de rigueur in Egypt found a home under the banner of a global war on terror. When the Americans were in need of an ally in executing their extraordinary-rendition program, Egypt handily stepped up to the plate -- quickly becoming one of the favored recipients of the unlucky Abu Omars of the world. Mubarak, in the meantime, continued to cooperate with the United States on security issues and maintained Egypt's fraught diplomatic ties with Israel. The country was, in turn, ensured its sustained bounty of military aid ($1.3 billion for 2008 alone) -- and a blind eye was cast on its dismal human rights record.

Today, Mubarak's squeeze on civil liberties seems only to be growing tighter. The country's very own Patriot Act, in the form of an "emergency law" (this is the sort of emergency that knows no end; Egyptians have lived under its aegis continuously since 1981), was renewed in 2006 despite Mubarak's repeated promises to do away with it. A series of thirty-four cumbersome constitutional amendments hastily pushed through in March 2006 further cut into civil liberties. Among them, Article 179 places unprecedented restrictions on the right to privacy and due process, and gives the government sanction to use exceptional courts in trying terrorism suspects. While Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's smooth-talking ambassador to the United States, has indicated that a new terrorism bill will "provide for the necessary checks and safeguards on the use of executive power in fighting terrorism," the law is more than likely to be the same old emergency law in a new guise. Tellingly, the USA Patriot Act and Britain's Anti-Terrorism Law have been cited in Egyptian parliamentary discussions surrounding the bill. They have theirs, too -- or so the logic ran.

When bombs went off in Egypt's stark Sinai Peninsula in 2004, 2005 and again in 2006, the state strained to frame the attacks as acts of foreign machination, even though most signs pointed to the operations being homegrown (Sinai's population has long been marginalized by the state, and the territory is thickly littered with gripes). In the bombings' wake, thousands have been arrested, and thus far three men have been sentenced to death for the 2004 bombings at the Red Sea resort town of Taba. Local human rights activists have pointed to questionable evidence, irregular trial proceedings and allegations of torture in eliciting "confessions" from the three. Even more recently, there have been indications that the state security forces may have gone as far as to fabricate incidents of terrorism to justify arrests. According to a new Human Rights Watch report, authorities have used trumped-up terrorism charges to clamp down on suspected Islamists, including resorting to arbitrary detention and torture to elicit false confessions in one 2006 case involving twenty-two detainees, referred to as the Victorious Sect.

And in recent months, the state has further turned up the heat on its enemies and civil society -- particularly with the question of succession uncomfortably lingering (who will succeed the 79-year-old Mubarak?) and indications of growing opposition to Mubarak's rule. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken the lion's share of the pressure, with its highest-ranking leaders in and out of prison, while thirty-three members face trial in a military tribunal for membership in a banned organization and allegedly providing students with weapons and military training. Increasingly, the state has been monitoring the Brotherhood's financial doings. The state-run press frequently intimates that it is linked to international terrorist networks.

Torture continues to be rampant -- of alleged Islamists, of democracy and labor activists, of bloggers and journalists. Authorities have shut down two NGOs in recent months, one that worked on torture cases and another on labor rights. The former, the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, had been involved in the first-ever lawsuit against a state security officer for torture. And at least ten journalists have been sentenced for various publishing offenses in the past months. Egyptian civil society has plainly seen better times.

Where are Egypt's American patrons, who for one brief moment called for reform, having occasionally leveraged their power in pushing for modest, if not merely symbolic, political openings? In a 2005 interview with ABC News on the eve of the country's first multiparty presidential election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Mubarak had "opened the door" to reform. But this past June, when George W. Bush voiced his concern for the fate of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader locked up on politically motivated charges, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused the American leader of "unacceptable" meddling in his country's affairs. The token gesture had been made, and it was back to business as usual. A Congressional foreign aid bill that would withhold $200 million in US military funds for Egypt -- based on its human rights abuses as well as its failure to monitor weapons-smuggling into Gaza effectively -- has shown little momentum since it passed the House this past summer.

And then came the news, in late July, that the United States had engineered a ten-year, multibillion-dollar arms package for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Israel and Egypt. Ostensibly designed to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, the generous deal was described by the Secretary of State as part of a "renewed commitment to the security of our key strategic partners in the region." It seemed that the business of the "global war on terror" and, by extension, of cultivating friendly autocratic regimes had once again trumped reform. Egypt's door, once showing signs of cracking open, had slammed firmly shut. Somewhere, Hosni Mubarak was smiling.

Negar Azimi is senior editor at Bidoun, an arts and culture magazine based in New York.

Copyright ©2007 The Nation

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This week, The Nation magazine offers a five-part series on the "global war on terror," and how it is working in five countries throughout the world. Below, how the GWOT has affected US relations with El Salvador:

A new anti-terrorism law gives El Salvador carte blanche to stifle dissent. And President Elías Antonio Saca finds it to be a useful tool to combat resistance to foreign investment -- and perhaps the coming privatization of water and other resources.

Bush's Global War on Terror in El Salvador
by Wes Enzinna

In September 2006, after the Salvadoran Congress passed the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, then-US Ambassador H. Douglas Barclay congratulated the Salvadoran people. "The US and El Salvador are [now] partners in the war on terror," he beamed. The law, modeled on the USA Patriot Act, establishes a special terrorism tribunal and allows for anonymous witnesses and undercover agents to participate in those trials. It also criminalizes acts such as public protests, street blockades and "publicly justifying terrorism" with punishments of up to eighty years in prison. More than a year later, this law has turned scores of Salvadoran citizens into fugitives.

Last July, I spent two weeks in San Salvador chasing down one of these ersatz outlaws -- Sandra Henriquez, a leader of the Salvadoran National Vendors Movement. On May 12 the National Civilian Police (PNC) raided vendors' stalls, including hers, in downtown San Salvador, attempting to confiscate the pirated goods they sell. The vendors resisted, and a group of angry onlookers -- some say provocateurs -- set fire to a police car. Shortly after, 150 riot police showed up and subdued the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Henriquez avoided arrest, but nineteen others were taken into police custody and charged under the antiterrorism law. At a press conference, President Elías Antonio Saca said, "[The vendors] are terrorists -- the correct word is 'terrorist'.... Anyone who sells something illegal on the streets must go to prison."

On May 30, the government issued a blacklist of suspects accused of participating in the Vendors Movement and thus wanted on terrorism charges. Henriquez was in her home watching her 3-year-old son when she heard that her husband was on the list and had been arrested, along with several others, bringing the total to twenty-two in jail. "What I didn't know was that the government had made the order to capture me as well," she said.

During the country's long civil war, government officials issued similar blacklists -- the next day, many of those on the lists would be dead. "When I found out I was on the blacklist, I fled," Henriquez said.

The vendors were the first activists to be accused under the antiterrorism law, but they will not be the last. On July 2, protesters gathered in the town of Suchitoto to oppose President Saca's plan to "decentralize" the country's water systems, which many believe is the first step toward privatization. As government helicopters swirled in the sky, protesters blockaded the street, preventing Saca's caravan from entering the city. Riot police and PNC agents opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets, and arrested thirteen people, including four leaders of the rural development organization CRIPDES, as well as journalist María Haydee Chicas.

Thirteen of those arrested are being charged under the anti-terrorism law.

María Silvia Guillén, executive director in El Salvador of the Foundation for Studies of Applied Law, believes the law is being used as a political weapon. It creates "wild cards that allow the concepts and penalties of the law to be invoked or left aside at any given time, influenced by any political motive," she says. Pedro Juan Hernández, a professor of economics at the University of El Salvador, concurs. "The objective of these antiterrorist laws isn't to fight terrorism, because there haven't been acts of terrorism [in El Salvador] in many years," he recently told In These Times.

The Bush and Saca administrations maintain close ties. El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq and was the first to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The country receives $461 million over five years in US aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and is home to the controversial US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador.

Despite ample evidence of abuses, US officials have failed to condemn violations of civil liberties in El Salvador. "Whatever step a government takes against terrorism is an appropriate step," said Ambassador Barclay after El Salvador's antiterrorism law squeezed through Congress last year. He also made news when he urged the Salvadoran government to step up its use of wiretaps. Current US Ambassador Charles Glazer has remained silent on the issue and declined to go on record for this article.

US economic interests run deep in El Salvador. After the 1996 privatization of the country's electricity industry, corporations like North Carolina-based giant Duke Energy swooped in to invest. If El Salvador's water infrastructure is privatized, analysts predict, a similar assault will follow.

In May, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an agency of the US government, held a conference in San Salvador focusing on "investment opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure [and] energy." CAFTA also streamlines the privatization process and prioritizes strengthening intellectual property laws and punishments, and the ILEA's founding charter establishes intellectual property rights as a prime concern. Elsewhere, the ILEA has said its mission is to "enhance the functioning of free markets." The vendors, however, say that repression has increased since CAFTA and the ILEA came to El Salvador.

Wilfredo Berrios, a labor leader in San Salvador, argues that the recent crackdown is designed to silence protest against Saca's economic policies and to protect the investment climate for foreign businesses. "The opposition to CAFTA and to water privatization has been very strong," Berrios says. "These policies can't go forward unless their opponents are silenced."

Opponents of the new law now include three judges from the San Salvador tribunals, who recently criticized the measure for being too vague. In August, forty-one US Congress members sent a letter to President Saca expressing concern over the arrest of Suchitoto protesters. On September 1, the government dropped all charges against the vendors. But the thirteen people arrested in Suchitoto, including Haydee Chicas, still face terrorism charges and will stand trial in February. If convicted, they could face up to sixty years in prison.

While it has offered rhetorical support for the antiterrorism law, the Bush Administration remains cautious about more direct intervention. After all, US involvement in the country's affairs -- like the massacre at El Mozote, where US-trained soldiers raped, tortured and executed 900 villagers in 1981 -- has caused diplomatic disasters in the past. But like Ambassadors Barclay and Glazer, Washington remains quietly supportive of repression in El Salvador, continuing to deepen and benefit from economic and military ties with the Saca administration.

If the United States has learned to be more hands-off in its relations with El Salvador, President Saca draws a very different lesson from history. In a May 7, speech, he offered an example for today's armed forces to emulate in the "war on terror": Col. Domingo Monterrosa, the commander who led the massacre at El Mozote. "Colonel Monterrosa," Saca said without irony, "knew how to defend the nation, with nobility, in the saddest moment of the Republic."

Wes Enzinna is a freelance journalist -- and a former intern at The Nation magazine.

Copyright ©2007 The Nation

This week, The Nation magazine offers a five-part series on the "global war on terror," and how it is working in five countries throughout the world. Below, how the GWOT has affected US relations with Pakistan:

Democracy in Pakistan withers and the homegrown Taliban gains strength. And, sadly, America's  "war on terror" dealings with Pakistan do little to support democracy there.

Bush's Global War on Terror in Pakistan
by Shahan Mufti

This past summer, as Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf stood, swords crossed with the band of his eclectic opposition, an audiotaped message from Osama bin Laden surfaced. "Musharraf's insistence on continuing his loyalty, submissiveness and aid to America," declared the voice, "makes armed rebellion against him and removing him obligatory."

The timing of the message left little doubt that the leader of Al Qaeda aimed to capitalize on the unrest caused by the country's freewheeling street movement -- even attempting to grab its reins. But it was a futile attempt. Sure, the movement of lawyers, students, human rights activists and journalists demanded an end to military rule, but it was not interested in bin Laden's utopia; it was mobilized to empower the country's assertive judiciary, which was enacting fundamental democratic reform and tipping the balance of power in favor of civilian forces for the first time in Pakistan's history.

But how was it that the leader of Al Qaeda was in a position to contemplate an alliance with a movement built around the demands for judicial independence and stronger institutional checks and balances? This was never part of the "global war on terror" program. Terrorism was to be countered by democracy: "Freedom and the development of democratic institutions," the National Security Strategy of 2002 stated, are America's weapons in eradicating terrorism and oppression from the globe.

Unfortunately, Washington never seemed interested in applying its rhetoric to Pakistan. Had it really ensured the growth over the past six years of solid democratic institutions in the world's second-largest Muslim country, there might have been little reason to draw up plans for doomsday scenarios to secure the country's nuclear installations in case one army officer fell from power. Instead, Washington has maintained its alliance with the increasingly unpopular ruler and pumped billions of dollars of aid into an imperious military (it is also America's third-largest client of military hardware), thereby weakening all other institutions of the state and fueling unrest in the country. In doing so, Imran Khan, a leader popular among the growing urban middle classes, warned recently, "Americans are pushing people who are in favour of democracy... towards extremism."

The "war on terror" landed next door in Afghanistan in 2001, and in Pakistan it produced all the wrong results. In the general elections in 2002, widely accepted as rigged by Pakistan's intelligence agencies to ensure General Musharraf's political survival, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Front, a coalition of Islamist parties (some conservative and militant), swept the entire west of the country, forming governments in two of Pakistan's four provinces. It was an unprecedented advance in a country where religious parties had never managed to win more than a tiny fraction of the popular vote. Militancy has only grown since. America's failure in Afghanistan has steadily boiled over into Pakistan through a 1,600-mile porous western border. Today, a war rages between self-styled Pakistani Taliban and the army a few hours north of the capital, in the once-majestic tourist resort of Swat. In 2007 alone there have been more than forty suicide attacks all over Pakistan, most aimed at military forces, compared with none six years ago.

Washington is trying to conjure up an alliance between the increasingly unpopular and erratic former general and a widely discredited Benazir Bhutto, who is being tried in international courts for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from Pakistanis during her two tenures as prime minister. Washington appears to believe that these "moderates" -- not the urban masses pleading for the rule of law -- form America's best line of defense in a fight against the guerrilla militancy that is feeding off popular discontent. The approach is convenient "strategic policy" -- just as supporting the mujahedeen once was, in another war at another time in the same place. America's policy-makers have always been more inclined to deal with all-powerful generals and intelligence agencies than with the people and their representatives in Pakistan. Strategic policy has consistently taken precedence over respect for the country's democratic institutions.

Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 and appeared on the map as the largest Muslim country in the world. But in contrast to some other colonial Muslim states, it was not generals or warlords but lawyers, politicians, students and activists who led a bare-knuckled movement against British rule, which would in turn lay the foundations of a constitutional republic.

Though the civil-military power balance in the country has always been stacked against civil democratic forces, thanks in part to heavy American aid that has poured in during times of army rule, democratic institutions remain ingrained in the state. So fundamental are they that the five times the military has taken over, it has depended on the country's courts to grant it popular legitimacy. It was a reversal of this compliant policy by the Supreme Court this year that led to Musharraf's coup against the judiciary.

The attack on the judiciary has reawakened the country's educated and growing but historically depoliticized middle classes, who have poured out onto the streets. Dressed in black suits and ties, the Pakistani lawyers fighting for reinstatement of sacked judges chant, "We made Pakistan! We'll save Pakistan!" They seem supremely confident of their country's ability to restore its sixty-year-old democratic promise.

Sadly, the movement battles American policy in the "war on terror," which seems (at best) to make little effort to support them. They are being jailed by the thousands by a US-supported ruler. Some old-guard politicians -- former prime ministers Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and even major Islamist leaders -- are still tempted to throw their chips in with the military establishment.

The movement is not blindly pro-American, but its members are most definitely not sympathetic to the vision of the Taliban, who have made steady inroads during Musharraf's rule. Torn between embattled extremes, they see an opportunity to finally reconcile the state's secular democratic foundation and Muslim national identity. But faced with continued ambivalence from major political players inside the country and the international community, they could simply disappear. That would be a shame, for they could be America's most natural and potent allies in this dismal war.

Shahan Mufti, a freelance writer based in Islamabad, is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

Copyright ©2007 The Nation

Released: 17 December 2007
Word Count: 1,017
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