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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal logo Karl F. Inderfurth
Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs

Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC, October 14, 1999

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Political Crisis in Pakistan

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, I appreciate this opportunity to appear before you today. We have many issues in South Asia that warrant our full attention. But none is more important today than the political crisis in Pakistan you have asked me to address. I look forward to discussing with you how we can fashion a U.S. response which promotes a prompt restoration of democracy in that country.

I would like to begin by reading the statement issued last night by the White House from President Clinton: "The events in Pakistan this week represent another setback to Pakistani democracy. Pakistan's interests would be served by a prompt return to civilian rule and restoration of the democratic process. I urge that Pakistan move quickly in that direction. I am sending my ambassador back to Islamabad to underscore my view directly to the military authorities, and to hear their intentions. I will also be consulting closely with all concerned nations about maintaining peace and stability in South Asia."

The Current Situation

Mr. Chairman let me now outline the facts as we know them, with a caveat that the situation remains fluid, our information is imperfect, and our understanding of intentions uncertain.

On Tuesday, October 12, the Government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the retirement of Chief of Army Staff Musharraf, who was out of the country at the time. Musharraf arrived in Pakistan from a visit to Sri Lanka shortly after the announcement was made. Simultaneously, military personnel under Musharraf's control placed the Prime Minister and other civilian and military leaders under house arrest. The armed forces closed the airports to civilian traffic, took over the state controlled broadcast media and interrupted some communications systems.

We listened closely to what General Musharraf had to say two nights ago when he addressed the nation about the decision and rationale for why the Armed Forces "moved in" to "reestablish order" in Pakistan, and why Prime Minister Sharif was removed from office. We also noted that General Musharraf promised that a further policy statement would be forthcoming shortly. We are still awaiting that statement. Apparently he has been consulting with constitutional experts, corps commanders and prospective government appointees about his next steps. When his statement is made, we hope that General Musharraf will set forth clear plans for the restoration of civilian government in Pakistan.

Mr. Chairman, that the military has deposed a democratically elected government is clear. It is, however, unclear whether General Musharraf intends to remain in political control, even in the short term. While the Pakistani Army did shut down the parliament building today, and our Charge Michele Sison was informed that the federal government and four provincial governments had been dissolved, martial law has not been imposed.

We understand that Prime Minister Sharif, his brother, the Chief Minister of Punjab Shabhaz Sharif, some Cabinet members, and General Ziauddin, head of the intelligence services, remain under house arrest. Our embassy in Islamabad has not been able to contact any of these individuals. We call upon the current Pakistani authorities to assure their safety and well-being.

The situation in Pakistan itself remains calm. Public reaction has been muted. Airports have been reopened. State run radio and television have resumed normal programming. The financial markets remain closed on a "banker's holiday."

I should also note that we have seen no reports of disruption or threats to Pakistan's nuclear facilities or any other installations.

While Indian forces have gone on alert, this appears to be only a precautionary measure. There does not appear to be a heightening of tensions between India and Pakistan. The official Indian reaction--as expressed in statements of Prime Minister Vajpayee and others--has been cautious and low key.

We still have no reports of problems for Americans in Pakistan. The U.S. Embassy notified American citizens of the crisis and urged them to exercise caution, recommending in particular that they limit unnecessary movement outside their residences.

The Larger Context

Mr. Chairman, the developments in Pakistan this week represent another setback in that country's long struggle to establish accountable and viable democratic institutions. In the 11 years since the Pakistan People's Party victory in 1988 brought Benazir Bhutto to power, no elected prime minister has served a full 5-year term. She served only 2 years of that term. Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League was victorious in 1990 but he resigned 3 years later. Benazir Bhutto was re-elected in 1993 and dismissed in 1996. Prime Minister Sharif won re-election in 1997 and, up to this week's action by the military, had served just over 2 years and 8 months. Pakistan's unfortunate history of interrupted democracy continues.

Mr. Chairman, the political crisis in Pakistan which culminated in this week's events is a product of Pakistan's history and recent developments. I do not need to remind you of the two long periods of martial law in Pakistan. These two periods served both to instill in the Pakistan military and civilian political class the habit of military participation in politics and to inhibit the development of a stable, democratic, constitutional system. Pakistan has yet to develop a consensus about how to share responsibility among civil institutions, nor has it forged a clear and accepted divide between civilian and military responsibilities.

Recent developments did not occur in a vacuum. Many Pakistanis viewed the current political and economic environment as alarming and getting worse. For the past year, Pakistan's economy has required IMF assistance to avert collapse. Pressing needs in education and health care went unmet in a budget devoted largely to debt service and defense. Terrorism and sectarian violence were spreading. Pakistanis were increasingly dissatisfied with the Sharif Government because of these economic trends, and also criticized it for taking actions that weakened the institutions of civil society including the judiciary, the press, and non-governmental organizations.

With respect to foreign policy front, February's euphoria at "bus diplomacy"--and the historic summit meeting in Lahore between Prime Ministers Sharif and Vajpayee--had dissipated by summer. The reason was Kargil, the incursion into territory on the Indian side of the Line of Control by forces from Pakistan. Serious and deadly fighting resulted, ending only when Prime Minister Sharif, in a meeting with President Clinton at Blair House, made the wise and courageous decision to take steps to encourage the intruders to withdrawal.

Prime Minister Sharif's decision engendered strong opposition at home. Some argued that it was a mistake to withdraw from Kargil. We could not disagree more. It was the right thing to do. The mistake was to launch the incursion in the first place. Civilian and military leaders alike--at the highest levels of government--share responsibility for that grave error, which set back the prospect of reconciliation with India which had seemed so promising, and also raised the prospect of a larger war between two nuclear capable adversaries.

In the weeks prior to the military takeover, a stream of opposition politicians had visited Washington and warned that the political situation was approaching crisis proportions. They said that Prime Minister Sharif had lost the confidence of much of the electorate and that tensions between civilian and military authorities were high.

In private, we told the opposition and government alike that we opposed any extra-constitutional action against the elected government. At the same time, we encouraged the government to permit the opposition to demonstrate peacefully and to express its views without hindrance. We also conveyed our views in public.

Just 2 weeks ago, it seemed that the crisis had been averted when General Musharraf was made simultaneously Chief of Army Staff and Chairman of the Joint Staff Committee, and his term extended until October 2001. Unexpectedly, and for reasons we do not know, Prime Minister Sharif on Tuesday then decided to remove Musharraf from both positions, precipitating military action. Let me emphasize that our understanding of the motives of the parties involved is imperfect. What we can say is that today the elected prime minister and many members of his government are in military detention. General Musharraf and the military are in control. President Clinton, Secretary Albright and other U.S. officials have expressed both our deep regret at this severe setback to democracy, and our hope that they will see--and do--their duty to restore Pakistan to civilian, democratic, constitutional government as soon as possible. The best response to an imperfect democracy is not to replace it with an unelected government. The remedy is to take concrete steps to strengthen democratic institutions.

What We are Doing

Mr. Chairman, until we see a restoration of a civilian democratic government in Pakistan, we have made it clear we would not be in a position to carry on business as usual with Pakistani authorities. In fact, as you know, Section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act contains a prohibition against a broad range of assistance for a country whose democratically elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree. We are now in the process of making the legal determination that such sanctions should be applied. As a practical matter, most forms of assistance were already prohibited for Pakistan under the Glenn Amendment and other statutory restrictions.

As President Clinton referred to in his statement last night, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Bill Milam, who has just completed urgent consultations in Washington, will arrive tomorrow in Islamabad. He will carry a message from the United States Government containing our publicly stated expectation that democracy and civilian government be restored as early as possible. He will seek to deliver this message to General Musharraf immediately upon his arrival. He will also make clear that we expect that Prime Minister Sharif, Chief Minister Sharif, and all other detainees will be treated properly.

Our view is that the sooner civilian democratic rule is restored, the better. Better for the Pakistani people. Better for Pakistan as a nation. Better for Pakistan's relations with the international community.

Mr. Chairman, we and other members of the international community are watching closely as the situation in Pakistan continues to evolve. We are consulting with key states regarding the situation. We have a great many important issues to address with Pakistan, issues which can best be addressed by a democratic government. These include:

  • Contributing to the development of stable, peaceful relations between Pakistan and India;
  • Averting a nuclear arms race in South Asia; and
  • Stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and addressing the questions of terrorism, human rights, and narcotics.

Pakistan is important. It is important because it can serve as an example of a progressive Islamic democracy, because it is a link--both economic and political--between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, because it has significant human and economic resources, and because it has historically been a friend of the United States. It is important therefore for the United States and other long-time friends of Pakistan to express their concern, exert their influence, and take those steps necessary and appropriate so that Pakistan can resume its course toward stable, constitutional democracy as soon as possible.

[end of document]

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