The sudden death of Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq ends a period of relative stability in Pakistan and presents Americans with difficulties as unhappy as they are familiar.
First, some background. Zia became president in July 1977 through a military coup d'êtat which deposed the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His rule began inauspiciously, for his muscling into power did not make him a popular figure, nor did his subsequent decision to execute Bhutto.
Indeed, every one of his major steps seemed to create controversy and new enemies. Zia promised elections time and again, only to delay them on each occasion in favor of a personal autocracy. His adoption of a fundamentalist Islamic approach to the law led to whippings and other archaic forms of justice, alienating large portions of the population, including non-fundamentalists, women, and Shi'ites.
But then Zia improved. However much he was initially a narrow disciplinarian, he had matured by the time of his death to become an accomplished leader. He did finally hold elections in 1985 and for the next three years shared power with a civilian prime minister, Mohammad Khan Junejo. Islamization turned out to have more bark than bite, and after scaring many was somewhat eased up.
Zia also brought important assets to the job. He turned out to be a well-informed, consensual ruler who relied less on intimidation than had any of predecessors. Experience enhanced Zia's self-confidence, and the result was all to the good. Then too, tragedy in Afghanistan brought sizeable economic and diplomatic benefits. A free-market orientation led to annual economic growth of over 7 percent a year, a remarkable achievement in Pakistan. In short, Pakistanis have enjoyed some good years.
The same pattern of improvement over time applied to Zia's relations with Washington. He initially made problems for himself by adopting a relaxed attitude toward poppy cultivation. Worse, he continued and expanded Bhutto's effort to build Pakistani atomic weaponry, the so-called Islamic bomb.
But here too, matters improved over time, thanks mostly to events outside Pakistan's borders. The Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in February 1979; Soviet forces invaded next-door Afghanistan in December 1979; and the Iraq-Iran war began in September 1980. As the neighborhood degenerated, Zia's vices began looking less important in American eyes.
The key event, of course, was the Soviet invasion, which Washington made its first priority; Afghanistan mattered more than Pakistan. But, because the Afghan mujahidin could be armed only with Pakistani assistance, this meant working in cooperation with Zia. The U.S. government started paying more than $500 million a year to Pakistan and granted access to some of its most advanced weaponry, including F-16 fighter aircraft. This alliance also meant swallowing hard and accepting what was most distasteful about Zia's rule: the autocracy, the Islamic law, the heroin and opium, even the nuclear arsenal.
In return, Zia was a resolute ally: Moscow sponsored many incidents of sabotage in Pakistan, some of it spectacular (as in the huge explosion in April of an ammunition dump near Islamabad, which killed more than a hundred persons), but he stuck to his policy.
At his death, Zia had been in power just over eleven years, making him the longest-serving leader in Pakistan's brief history. For all his foibles, he brought an unusual degree of constancy to Pakistan, and this will no doubt be missed.
What's next? The armed forces, the ultimate power brokers in Pakistan, are likely to insist on the declaration of martial law in Pakistan. An interim leader-perhaps the presiding officer of parliament-will take over. Though radical or sudden change is unlikely, Pakistan's weak political institutions and tense circumstances reduce the chances of stability being regained soon.
As for Afghanistan, we have to remember that the war is far from over. To be sure, uniformed Soviet soldiers are pulling out, but this still leaves Soviet intelligence operatives, Soviet arms supplies, and a host of other levers of Soviet control over Afghanistan. Until Soviet control has finally been broken, Afghanistan should remain the top American priority in South Asia. But Soviet control will end only if the Pakistani and American governments remain firm in keeping the pressure on.
The danger now is that Zia's passing may mean a weakening of Pakistani resolve. This means continuing to bite the bullet and working with Zia's successor, almost without regard to who he is or what he stands for.