Wars and Military Dictatorships

In 1959, under a new constitution, the newly self-titled Field Marshal Ayub issued the Basic Democracies Order, which again revised the political structure. Political parties were disbanded and numerous politicians were disqualified from holding office, elections were held only for the local governments, and Ayub took on the title of president.

While keeping democracy in check, Ayub sought to shift the focus to economic development seeing growth as the route to the country’s salvation. If political solutions could not be easily found, then perhaps economic success would cover over the constitutional crises.

In the process, Pakistan became a cold war ally of the United States. Seeking economic and military aid to defend against its neighbor India, Pakistan joined the Central Treaty Organization and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, two of a series of alliances designed to contain the Soviet Union. India, a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, declined.

Pakistan and the United States subsequently developed close military ties. The U.S. established an air force base near the city of Peshawar in northern West Pakistan close to the border with Afghanistan.

This base was used for U-2 spy plane missions over Soviet territory until the Soviets shot down the plane piloted by Gary Powers in 1960. Under pressure from the Soviets, Pakistan secured the planes’ removal, but the United States maintained a CIA listening post there until 1970.

In 1962, Ayub ended martial law with a new constitution that created a virtually dictatorial presidential system. Nonetheless, political parties were restored, and in 1965, a presidential election was held with Ayub and Jinnah’s sister Fatima as the candidates. Ayub won and declared prematurely that his victory was a “clear and final verdict on the Constitution.”

Kashmir and the Rise of Bhutto

In 1965, the long-running border dispute between India and Pakistan, especially over Kashmir, erupted into warfare. The fighting was relatively brief, but the army of Pakistan was overwhelmed. When Ayub acknowledged that Pakistan could not win and sought an end to the conflict it was a major blow to his prestige.

Pakistani politics once again spun into turmoil.

Bhutto, who had risen to foreign minister, broke with Ayub and created the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967. Ostensibly socialist, the PPP quickly became Bhutto’s personal vehicle in a contest for power.

Ayub was forced to resign by the army head General Muhammad Yahya Khan in 1969. Following a similar script to those who came before him, Yahya abrogated the 1962 Constitution, banned all political parties, and declared martial law.

He then called a national parliamentary election for October 1970, but he postponed it after a series of serious floods in East Pakistan. In the midst of this, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), a Bengali nationalist and later prime minister of Bangladesh, and the Awami League produced a list of demands and began calling for greater autonomy for East Pakistan, including a separate currency, tax system and militia.

The election was rescheduled for December, but in November a massive cyclone hit East Bengal and killed more than a million people. Relief efforts by the central government were widely seen in East Pakistan as inadequate and indicative of the indifference of western leaders toward the east.

When the first general election in Pakistan’s history finally took place, the Awami League won 167 of 169 of East Pakistan’s seats while Bhutto’s PPP won 81 seats. And reflecting the chasm separating the eastern and western parts of Pakistan, neither party won any seats in the other wing of the country.

As the leader of the largest party, Mujib expected to be asked to form a government, but Bhutto, who was influential among the generals in Yahya’s inner circle, had a different idea. When Yahya declared Mujib prime minister, the PPP and many leading generals objected.

Splitting East and West: the Birth of Bangladesh

In the political jockeying that followed the elections, the army began reinforcing its garrisons in East Pakistan. It transferred Bengali troops to the west and moved soldiers from the west to the east.

In a conciliatory gesture, Yahya ordered the National Assembly to hold its first meeting in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. He then delayed the opening to give the politicians more time to sort out a government. Bengali politicians were offended by the delay and some began to call for an independent Bangladesh. Massive protests, strikes, and riots erupted throughout the province.

The call for an independent Bangladesh was the culmination of years of political discontent and cultural marginalization in East Pakistan. Their Bengali language had not been adopted as a national language of Pakistan. Bengalis were underrepresented in army officer ranks as well as the civil service. And the national capital had been placed in West Pakistan.

As violence grew, the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971. It attacked the remaining Bengali army units and rounded up and killed civilians including professionals like doctors, lawyers, and writers. Hindus were targeted as enemies of Pakistan. It was only in 2013 that several perpetrators of this mass slaughter were convicted in a Bangladeshi court.

After waves of refugees from Bangladesh fled to India, the government of Indira Gandhi announced that it couldn’t effectively cope with the millions crossing the border. Gandhi not only wanted to stop the flow of refugees but saw the opportunity to strike a blow against rival Pakistan. She ordered the intervention of the Indian army and after a short war with fighting in both the east and the west, Pakistan was forced to surrender and accept the independence of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971.

Déjà vu all over again: The Bhutto and Zia Years

Losing the civil war was devastating to the remainder of Pakistan. Yahya was forced to resign and Bhutto took office as the country’s first civilian president in thirteen years.

At the same time, the example of secession of one part of Pakistan set off other demands for local power in the western parts of Pakistan, especially in the province of Balochistan in the southwest of the country. Bhutto rejected the unrest as the work of “secessionists” and sent in the army to suppress it.

In 1973, Bhutto approved another new constitution that in theory reduced the power of the president in favor of the National Assembly and the prime minister. According to historian Safdar Mahmood, it “heralded a new era of democracy and political stability in Pakistan,” but in practice things fell short.

Protests and riots grew as the opposition denounced the 1977 election as rigged. Bhutto had opposition politicians arrested and turned to the head of the army, General Zia-ul-haq, to impose martial law.

Instead, Zia staged a coup and had Bhutto executed in 1979.

On assuming the presidency, Zia instituted an Islamization of the mostly secular political system and revised the constitution to increase the power of the president. Zia incorrectly hoped that the Islamization of Pakistan would lead to a greater national unity.

Opposition to Zia grew during the early 1980s and in a bid to calm the situation he lifted martial law in 1985 and called an election but banned political parties from participating. The election failed to quell the unrest.

Zia then allowed the daughter of Bhutto, Benazir, to return from exile. The younger Bhutto was able to unify the opposition and as the protests increased, Zia died in an airplane crash in 1988.

In the midst of this decade of political turbulence, U.S.-Pakistani relations took on a new urgency.

Initially, the United States had viewed Zia as an illegitimate and distasteful dictator. But with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the United States offered Zia billions of dollars in economic and military aid to secure his cooperation.

Alternating Governments

With the death of Zia, democracy in Pakistan received new life.

The two major parties were the PPP led by Bhutto and the Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. The constitution as revised by Zia remained in force, giving the president extensive power. Both Bhutto and Sharif were elected twice and then dismissed twice by presidents allied with the military.

In 1999, Sharif’s second term ended early by a coup led by General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, like earlier coup leaders, promised to restore order and step aside for early elections. And like the others, he failed to follow through.

Opposition to Musharraf was initially muted but grew over time. One major problem he faced was neighboring Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had withdrawn from the country in 1989, but Afghanistan was soon plunged into civil war.

The United States had lost interest in Afghanistan, but Pakistan faced a flood of refugees across the porous border. It organized refugee camps and in these camps the Taliban was born. Assisted by elements within Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Service Intelligence, the Taliban evolved into a major political movement best known for its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Following 9/11, American interest in Afghanistan was renewed. This posed a problem for Musharraf because a substantial segment of Pakistani society was sympathetic towards the Taliban. Under intense American pressure, Musharraf decided to cooperate with the U.S. invasion of his neighbor.

As Musharraf’s popularity waned, the opposition led by Bhutto and Sharif in exile pushed him to resign. Musharraf agreed to step down as the head of the army and to call an election which he would contest as a civilian. Bhutto was allowed to return once again from exile but as she campaigned for office she was assassinated in 2007.

The following year, Musharraf resigned and Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari won the presidential election and the PPP won the following parliamentary election. Zardari, nicknamed “Mr. Ten Percent” because he was widely believed to take a commission on most government contracts, had served as a member of Bhutto’s second government.

His popularity waned rapidly as the country faced economic difficulties and the effects of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Zardari cooperated with the United States and tried to improve relations with India. Yet, like Musharraf, he also desperately tried to avoid alienating Taliban sympathizers.

In 2009, he was obligated to transfer control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani. With continued allegations of corruption, Zardari came under increased pressure to resign.

While the PPP government managed to finish its five-year term, the party became extremely unpopular. Sharif’s Muslim League won the 2013 election with a substantial majority.

Sharif: Third Time’s a Charm or More of the Same?

Many believed that Sharif, after thirteen years in the wilderness, would approach his third term in office in a less confrontational and more effective fashion.

While Sharif’s third government may be somewhat less provocative in style, substantively little has changed. In most areas other than the economy, Sharif has been unable to fulfill his promises.

He has continued his policies of economic reform, including the privatization of government run enterprises. Companies like Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Steel are in the process of being privatized. Foreign direct investment has gone up while the rate of GDP growth is higher than it was last year.

However, Sharif has so far been unable to improve Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, India, or the United States.

In early 2014, Pakistan and Afghanistan traded accusations over continuing cross-border terrorism.

More importantly, Sharif has not been able to persuade the United States to stop sending drones to Pakistan. Drone strikes have led to widespread anti-American sentiment.

Sharif’s government has also had difficulty improving domestic security. Terrorist attacks have increased and efforts to negotiate with the Tehrik-e-Taliban (the Taliban in Pakistan) have been sporadic. In response, the government has implemented stringent new security laws including the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance [PPO] that have attracted protests from opposition parties and human rights organizations.

The implementation of the PPO suggests that the long awaited political stability remains elusive. Despite the positive nature of the transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another, the structural problems in the Pakistani political system persist, as does the unusually difficult geopolitical neighborhood in which Pakistan resides.