THE unceremonious dismissal of Benazir Bhutto's government has shown once again the fragility of the democratic experiment in Pakistan. It had hardly been 20 months since that experiment began under the watchful eye of the military establishment. After years of exile, Ms. Bhutto went home to become the first woman prime minister of an Islamic nation. That in itself was a major achievement. Pakistani women nurtured hopes of improving their lot. But it ended all too soon when the entrenched interests of the military overrode other finer considerations and Bhutto's government was dismissed on charges of corruption and ineptitude. There is little doubt it was a ``quasi-military coup'' as Bhutto has said. The military establishment, which has governed Pakistan for most of its 43 years of existence, has never been fully in favor of civilian government. While the army initially supported the government, it slowly became clear that it considered Bhutto a temporary aberration to be tolerated but not trusted.
Well aware of the army's sensitivity on the question of power-sharing, Bhutto went out of her way to please the generals on issues closer to their hearts. The generals made and executed the policy on Afghanistan. The nuclear program remained under military control. In Kashmir, they convinced Bhutto to adopt a hard-line policy while they trained and sheltered Kashmiri militants. But they wanted more and more.
The most immediate crisis was the violence in Sindh province between local Sindhis and the Mohajir community, who migrated from India at the time of independence and partition. The army wanted to set up military courts to deal with it while Bhutto said extra powers would amount to martial law. The army said it wanted to get Sindh out of the way in case of war against India. It argued for a ``strong'' national government.
The timing of Bhutto's dismissal coincided conveniently with the Iraq-Kuwait crisis in the Gulf, helping to dull the international reaction. Pakistan's most valuable friend - the United States - had only a few words to say. There was no comment from the White House while the State Department referred to the dismissal as a ``constitutional change'' and ``an internal matter.'' Reaction on the Hill was stronger, and several senators talked of cutting military aid to Pakistan or making it conditional on free and fair elections in October.
It has always been difficult to determine a political course in Pakistan, torn as it is by the pull of Islam and the desire to be a modern nation state. Bhutto had the difficult task of working the divergent strains into an organic whole without angering the military, the mullahs, or the people. She failed many times and squandered much of the goodwill that had accompanied her rise to power.
But that still does not clarify President Ghulam Ishaq Khan's reading of the constitution in dismissing the prime minister. It clarifies even less the assumption that endemic corruption in Pakistani society can be removed by installing the opposition.
President Khan is known to be close to the military since he depends on them for political support. A civil servant most of his life, he lacks a political base. The same goes for Foreign Minister Yaqub Khan, who manages to be in government no matter who is prime minister. His links to the military go back to the days when he himself was a general.
The three distinct power centers - Bhutto, Khan, and the military - made it difficult for civilian government to function coherently. Bhutto was never able to fully control the decisionmaking process. She initially was confident of the president's support while mistrusting the military. The military under Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg was busy supporting fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Kashmir, making a mockery of attempts to formulate a political solution.
Bhutto supporters say American Ambassador Robert Oakley has been all too willing to accept the military's interpretation of what was happening in the country. Officials here admit that Mr. Oakley sometimes had to be reminded that Bhutto was the head of government and not the generals.
The dismissal of Bhutto's government will have wider ripples in the region. Tension between India and Pakistan has been rising over Kashmir and a more hard-line government in Pakistan will spell more trouble. If the military in Pakistan is ascendant, there is more likelihood of it dipping its fingers in various regional problems to justify its role and gain political legitimacy.
Let us hope the experiment in democracy can resume in Pakistan in October when elections have been promised.