US backing likely to help Zia tighten his grip on Pakistan

Pakistan's previously vocal opposition to martial law appears to have crumbled into a state of national resignation. Since coming to power over four years ago, President Zia ul-Haq has managed to consolidate his increasingly rigid and fundamentalist dictatorship by increasing the influence of the military at the upper echelons of society, fully neutralizing the civil courts, and stifling criticism.

A devoutly religious man, Zia has sought to improve his leadership credentials by accelerating his Islamization program and trying to assert himself as spokesman for the world's 546 million Muslims. He also hopes to use the proposed $3 billion US-Pakistani economic and military package to strengthen his position among his fellow countrymen.

"Two years ago, Zia was a despised petty dictator," observed a West European diplomat. "Since the invasion of Afghanistan, which came like a godsend to his regime, he has suddenly become internationally respectable."

The assumption among much of Pakistan's primarily middle-class political opposition is that the bilateral agreement will emerge as a public blessing by the United States of the Zia administration. In their contacts with Pakistanis, US officials have been careful to deny this. Washington, they stress, has provided Pakistan with assistance since 1954 regardless of political leadership.

While recognizing the United States' desire to respond more effectively to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, some Pakistanis argue that the proposed credits should be coupled with US pressure on Zia to lift martial law and return to civilian rule. "The United States is in a strong position and does have the means to make zia listen," said one opposition lawyer.

The arrangement would provide Pakistan with credits over a five-year period to purchase urgently needed defense equipment as well as to help boost its economy. Although it is intended as a political gesture for the country rather than the regime, some observers warn that Zia remains a political liability for the United States. Any political change of direction in Pakistan could damage relations with the US. The Western diplomatic community in Islamabad has expressed little confidence in the staying power of President Zia.

At the same time, however, Western diplomats express just as little confidence in a return to civilian rule. Even members of Pakistan's floundering political opposition reluctantly agree.

"I unfortunately see no hope for democratic government in the distant future, " said Aftab Gul, a Lahore lawyer and former associate of former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was tried and executed by President Zia's government. "If any changes come about at the top, it will just mean handing over power to another military man."

Although much of Zia's personal political security is reinforced by a general public indifference to his regime, any sudden social upheaval could easily rupture the status quo.

"With living conditions better than in India, there is no single reason for the average Pakistani to resist," said one European resident. "But there is definitely a growing sense of frustration."

Pakistanis express considerable anger at special privileges for military officers -- ranging from luxury housing to financial kickbacks and corruption -- and certain government-enforced Islamic measures.

For the moment, Pakistan's dozen or so opposition parties have little or no muscle to flex. They have failed to unite in an effective alliance against the regime.

In contrast to opposition circles. Pakistan's business community seems content with the political and social order under Zia. It would wholeheartedly welcome the proposed US deal.

Although many foreigners still regard the Pakistani internal situation as too uncertain a risk for capital investments, local Karachi and Lahore businessmen feel that a new sense of security has been created.

Most businessmen agree that the proposed credits will strengthen Zia's personal position. Others feel that although the regime would draw initial benefit from American support. The relationship would soon develop into a US-Pakistani accord rather than one between the United States and Marshal Zia.

Foreign Minister Agha Shahi explains that Pakistan's nonalignment policies would not permit the establishment of any US bases on Pakistanis soil. But he maintains that the two countries have embarked on a new relationship -- without entering into a military alliance.

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