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The Military Reasserts Itself

Although General Zia asserted that this military intervention in politics would be brief and there would be new elections within ninety days, he had the longest tenure of any Pakistani ruler. Although he came to power more as a spokesman of military interests--a first among equals--and was thought to be a political naif, he was highly skilled in gathering power into his own hands.

On assuming power, Zia named himself chief martial law administrator and suspended parts of the 1973 constitution. (Zia assumed the presidency as well in September 1978.) Because it appeared that Bhutto, if freed and available as a candidate, might easily win the elections, Zia postponed them and undertook a campaign to discredit his predecessor politically. Zia's initial assumption of power was peaceful, and even his subsequent decision to allow Bhutto to be hanged after Bhutto's conviction as an accomplice to murder a political opponent, did not bring disturbances severe enough to threaten his regime. There was, however, continued opposition to military rule, and Zia was able to maintain himself in power only through a combination of political luck, skill, and authoritarianism.

Although the military regime was often repressive, state violence was downplayed, and some observers believe that human rights conditions were better than during the Bhutto years. Zia also emphasized the corruption in political life and the need for reform. Ethnic resistance in Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province was dealt with adroitly; only the ethnic Sindhis remained profoundly alienated (see Zia ul-Haq and Military Domination, 1977-88 , ch. 1). Zia also proved politically skillful in employing a strategy of continually holding out the promise of free elections when circumstances permitted, making political concessions that would strengthen rather than undermine his position and, especially after 1979, co-opting influential political groups among orthodox Muslims. )

The first years of Zia's tenure marked another low point in the security situation. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew one of Pakistan's staunchest friends, and the missionary zeal of its new Islamist regime did not bode well for Pakistan-Iran relations. The Saur Revolution (April Revolution) in Afghanistan in 1978 ousted a government that had become conciliatory in its relations with Pakistan, replacing it with a group that also preached radical change--this time, communist. When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Pakistan found itself in a security nightmare--for the first time, the Soviet Union posed a potentially immediate threat.

Relations with the United States were also at a low point. The administration of President Jimmy Carter had adopted an extremely hard line on Pakistan's nuclear program and suspended all military and economic assistance in April 1979. In March 1979, after the Iranian Revolution, Pakistan withdrew from a moribund CENTO. Tensions with the United States peaked when a Pakistani mob burned the United States embassy in Islamabad in November 1979, killing two Americans and two Pakistani employees, in response to a BBC radio broadcast of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's speech, in which he falsely accused the United States of invading the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Although China remained a good friend, political scientist Robert G. Wirsing's assessment proved accurate: "Never before had Pakistan been quite so isolated and quite so threatened at the same time."

Data as of April 1994