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The US in Pakistan: Relying on a Familiar Playbook

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The scenario in Pakistan that is being played out now has proven its usefulness over the decades since World War II. It is not at all unusual for a dictator like Musharraf to receive the blessings of the United States only to fall out of favor and, consequently, find himself out of work, or, like Manuel Noriega, in prison. Or, in Saddam Hussein’s case, dangling at the end of a rope.

Just as Saddam’s trial and execution were a violation of the Geneva Conventions (a belligerent occupier is barred from taking over the government of the conquered state) so is interference in the internal affairs of other countries a violation of the UN Charter. The United States, it seems, has been a rogue state – a lawless state — for quite some time.

A corollary to current events in Pakistan can be found in the recent history of the Philippines, for example. In the seventies and early eighties, Ferdinand Marcos, president and dictator of the Philippines, enjoyed being toasted at state dinners by US presidents and other visiting dignitaries. The foreign aid that he received in compensation for his services was not hard to take either.

But trouble loomed. An insurgency, said to be “communist-inspired,” had been gaining strength among the country’s poor. It appeared that Marcos was unable to contain it; the US could ill-afford another debacle in the Far East after “losing” Vietnam to its own people.

Benigno “Benny” Aquino, a political opponent of Marcos, had gone into exile here in the United States. In 1983, he decided with CIA backing to return. By crystallizing opposition to Marcos, Aquino hoped to replace him by winning an election that Marcos was being pressured to hold.

Given this switch in the allegiance of the US, can there be any doubt that Marcos knew, just as Musharraf now knows, that his days were numbered?


Although Musharraf came to power through a military coup in 1999, Marcos became president in 1965 by way of a fraudulent election, a staple of Philippine politics. But both men consolidated power by rapidly gaining control of all the levers of government, declaring martial law when necessary, imprisoning opponents, and rewriting their particular country’s constitution.

Like Benazir Bhutto, Aquino was supposed to be protected by a military escort upon his return. However, this protection proved inadequate. Aquino did not even set foot on Philippine soil for he was shot coming down the exit ramp of his plane, his body falling onto the tarmac at Manila International Airport. Bhutto’s security force had successfully protected her from her assassins’ initial attempt. It was only after the election campaign got underway that they could say, “Mission accomplished.”

Musharraf had been under pressure for months, chiefly by the US and the UK to do more about containing the Taliban, formerly US allies but now US enemies, to seal the border with Afghanistan, demolish al Quaeda, and tamp down a growing Islamic fundamentalism. Sanctions had been imposed and then lifted as Musharraf scrambled to accommodate shifting US demands.

A former prime minister and, therefore, a known quantity, Bhutto had been given the go-ahead by the US to run against Musharraf. Bush began putting the pieces in place. He successfully urged Musharraf to “take off his uniform” to show that he was giving up his position as head of the military. (Of course, Bush, himself, holds these dual positions of president and commander in chief.)   

Musharraf has had to agree to hold elections, knowing he cannot emerge a legitimate winner. While Condoleeza Rice was demanding a date certain, negotiations were being finalized that allowed Bhutto to return from exile without fear of being arrested on corruption charges.

The assassination of Aquino threw the Philippines into turmoil just as Bhutto’s has now done in Pakistan. It took an ongoing series of street demonstrations for two and a half years before this dictator would consent to holding an election.

The US replaced Benigno Aquino with his wife, Corazon, herself a member of a wealthy, land-owning family. In a ballyhooed, yellow-ribbon election campaign much was made of the fact that “Cory” could become the first woman president of the Philippines. Her platform included a promise of land reform that served to defuse the populists’ revolt since it had been their key issue. It was quickly forgotten, however, after she became president.

In Pakistan, the US has agreed to Benazir Bhutto’s husband and son becoming co-chairs of her party and to her husband being the party’s candidate. Although Bush insisted that the January 9th election take place, it has now been postponed for six weeks.

Musharraf has had to make concession after concession. What will his next moves be as he struggles to hold on to power? Will he do what Marcos did by declaring himself the winner of what had obviously been a fraudulent election? This claim precipitated a lengthy stand-off. At the urging of Corazon Aquino, huge crowds demonstrated daily and non-violently in front of the Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence, demanding his resignation.

Marcos wouldn’t budge in spite of pressure from the Reagan administration and the Catholic Church. But more and more members of his military undermined his power by refusing to attack the protestors. Marcos, physically ill, finally gave in and boarded a US plane at Clark Air Force base that flew him to Guam and then on to Hawaii.

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Author of Discovering America: A Political Journey and of a free booklet on Patriarchy; a feminist and political activist.
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