Making peace with Washington

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The crisis of legitimacy faced by Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf has been exacerbated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December.

Pakistan's 60 year history has always been marked by instability, corruption and military rule. But the background to the current situation is 9/11.

As the US mobilised for war in Afghanistan, Richard Armitage of the US State Department threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age if it failed to support the "war on terror". Musharraf duly obliged and the West described Pakistan as "an exemplary country in the fight against terrorism" while Pakistanis dubbed their president "Busharraf".

Today 85,000 Pakistani troops are engaged in military operations along the border of the two countries facing a reformed Taliban and the instability of an occupied Afghanistan.

The portrayal by the US and the media of an Islamist takeover of a nuclear Pakistan is largely fantasy. The Islamists do not enjoy that level of support and the military's use of the Islamists, past and present, should not be confused with the "Talibanisation" of the chain of command.

Last year Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, began embarrassing the regime with a series of challenges on rushed privatisations, corruption and the disappearance of political activists. On top of that, Islamabad was worried that he would make moves to declare the military presidency unconstitutional. Musharraf foolishly sacked him. A lawyers' movement grew rapidly and organised country-wide rallies, forcing Musharraf to reinstate Chaudhry.

Behind the scenes the US made moves to shore up Musharraf by brokering talks for a power-sharing deal with self-exiled Benazir Bhutto who still maintained, though diminished, popular support. As the Christian Science Monitor explained, the situation presented "a picture of a weakened president and weak politicians leaning on each other to share the spoils of power".

The "Daughter of the West" had made her peace with Washington and the "war on terror".

However, still facing challenges from the independent media and the lawyers' movement, Musharraf declared a state of emergency on 3 November. Bhutto fled back to Dubai, the chief justice of the Supreme Court was arrested and a general crackdown on dissent ensued.

Bhutto had two choices. Support Musharraf's moves and commit political suicide or rally against him and lose the support and basis of the deal with the US. Slowly and reluctantly she rallied against him - the assassination followed.

Coming elections this year will certainly bring further instability. But 2008 is also the 40th anniversary of the worldwide movement of the oppressed, and Pakistan too saw the birth of a mass movement that brought down the country's first dictator, Ayub Khan, in 1969.

The chance to deepen that movement was thrown away by Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto (Benazir's father) who failed to deliver on a radical social democratic programme and supported the military's disgraceful invasion and occupation of East Pakistan (becoming Bangladesh in 1971).

Pakistan desperately needs a new left and the recent movement, led by lawyers, but also including students, has the potential of growing to include the central involvement of workers.