Everything's going Zia's way now, but how firm is country's foundation?
General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq has certainly been fortunate.Skip to next paragraph
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Since seizing power five and a half years ago, he has had four years of extremely good weather, producing bumper crops. He has reaped the policy benefits of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who sent waves of workers to the oil-rich Gulf. Workers now send home $2.2 billion a year - critical foreign exchange for the coffers of Pakistan's military regime.
World prices for rice and cotton, Pakistan's major exports, were favorable until 1981.
And the 1979 Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan has proved both a curse and a blessing to General Zia. Above and beyond the implicit threat to his own borders and the economic implications of housing nearly 3 million Afghan refugees, Afghanistan has bestowed a modicum of legitimacy on his martial-law regime. No longer dismissed as a pariah by the geopolitically conscious Western world, General Zia has stridden across the stage of political expediency - reaping new aid commitments to shore up his armed forces and cushion his country's fragile economy.
He will receive $3.2 billion in economic and military assistance - including 40 F-16s - from the Reagan administration over the next five years. He has signed a three-year agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which will bring him $1.4 billion in foreign exchange. And last summer he rescheduled Pakistan's enormous national debt, which costs this nation over $700 million yearly.
He has adroitly sidestepped US congressional restrictions on military assistance to countries believed to be developing nuclear arms - even at a time of mounting evidence that Pakistan is on the threshold of entering the nuclear club.
But Western officials see General Zia presiding over a structure whose foundation could weaken and perhaps collapse. The country's impressive growth rate of 6 percent a year is based on a fragile premise. Political violence is on the rise. Only one of the country's religious parties - the militant Jamaat-i-Islami - still supports the military regime. And a magic embellishes the name of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose own excesses appear forgotten today.
Even among supporters of the 1977 military takeover there appears to be waning enthusiasm for one-man rule. From the manicured lawns of the Karachi Yacht Club to the poorest North-West Frontier village, one hears over and over, ''How much longer will it last?''
The enigmatic General Zia has done little to establish a power base. His only constituency, he tells foreign visitors, remains the armed forces. Nearly 80 percent of the Army of 450,000 comes from the stark agricultural villages of the sweeping Punjab, long a source of resentment in the North-West Frontier, Baluchistan, and Sind. Resentment has grown with persistent reports of corruption within the Army, and the number of officers assuming key civilian positions.
General Zia himself is largely accepted as an honest, pious man. But he remains largely unknown to businessman and peasant. He has won the sympathy of Western ambassadors by his humility and charm. But he has also perplexed them - as he has many in this nation of 84 million, stretching from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea.
''I see no major threat to him at the moment,'' a Western diplomat said. ''But he can't govern indefinitely without popular support. He's sitting on a volcano. Look at recent history. No one thought that the Shah would fall. One small incident could touch things off. We've seen twice in Pakistan's independent history of only 35 years that mobs can go to the streets in this country, and governments do fall.''
There have been persistent reports, which cannot be verified, of at least three attempts this year alone on General Zia's life. Officials refuse to discuss the incidents, but acknowledge a wave of car bombings, attempts to assassinate other government officials, political arson, and general sabotage. And although neutral observers say there is no evidence that the incidents are linked, the government has put the onus squarely on the shoulders of the Kabul-based terrorist group headed by Bhutto's two sons.
The government has ordered firearms licenses issued to any ''law abiding'' citizen, to repel the escalating number of ''terrorist attacks,'' an ominous portent in a nation where Islamic extremists are said to be stockpiling arms.
But as in much of the third world, the greatest vulnerability this nation's military rulers face is a downturn in the economy. Though this is a developing country, there are certain signs of consumer wealth.