Pakistan: Recent History

Recent History

Failure to reach a reconciliation prompted the army chief of staff, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, to depose Bhutto in a military coup in July and declare martial law. Zia was declared president in September, and Bhutto, convicted of ordering the murder of political opponents, was hanged in Apr., 1979. In the 1980s Pakistan was dominated by events occurring in neighboring Afghanistan, where the Soviet invasion resulted in the flight of over 3 million people to Pakistan. Pakistan served as the primary conduit for U.S. aid to the Afghan resistance, resulting in large amounts of U.S. aid to Pakistan as well. The relationship prompted Zia to return the government to civilian hands, and in 1985 he announced the end of martial law, but only after amending the constitution so as to greatly strengthen his power as president.

In 1986, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his heir as head of the Pakistan People's party (PPP), returned to the country. In May, 1988, Zia dismissed parliament, charging it with widespread corruption, and announced general elections for November. In August, Zia died in a mysterious plane crash. The PPP won the November elections, and Bhutto became prime minister. Despite a strong power base, Bhutto encountered numerous problems in office, including regional ethnic clashes, the difficulties of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and long-term tensions caused by Pakistan's poverty and its uneasy relationship with India. In Aug., 1990, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Bhutto and her cabinet, accusing them of misconduct and abuse of power.

November elections brought to power a coalition government headed by Nawaz Sharif, whose administration instituted economic reform policies of privatization and deregulation in an effort to stimulate growth. In 1991 the parliament passed legislation incorporating Islamic law (sharia) into the legal code. When Sharif moved to reduce presidential power, he was dismissed (1993) by President Ishaq Khan; the ensuing crisis was resolved with the resignations of both men. Bhutto's party won the most seats in new elections later in 1993, and she once again became prime minister, heading a coalition government; Farooq Leghari, a Bhutto ally, was elected president. In 1995 some three dozen military officers were arrested, reportedly for plotting an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. In 1996 Bhutto was again dismissed on charges of corruption, by President Leghari. In 1997, Leghari established a Council for Defense and National Security, which gave a key role in political decision-making to the heads of the armed forces.

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) won a huge majority in the 1997 elections and he once again became prime minister. Sharif soon moved to enact legislation curbing the president's power to dismiss elected governments and to appoint armed forces chiefs; the supreme court blocked these moves and reinstated a corruption inquiry against Sharif. In an apparent victory for Sharif, President Leghari resigned in Dec., 1997, and the chief justice of the supreme court was dismissed. Mohammad Rafiq Tarar became president in 1998. Following the detonation of underground nuclear devices by India in May, 1998, Pakistan carried out its own series of nuclear tests; the United States imposed economic sanctions against both countries. In the summer of 1999, conflict with India over Kashmir erupted again, with Pakistani-backed troops withdrawing from Indian-held territory after several weeks of fighting.

In Oct., 1999, a bloodless military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Sharif, suspended the constitution, and declared martial law. Sharif was charged with treason, and in Apr., 2000, he was convicted of hijacking an airliner (as a result of issuing orders to deny permission to land to the plane that Musharraf had been on prior to the 1999 coup) and was sentenced to life in prison. Sharif subsequently was also convicted on corruption charges, and later exiled (Dec., 2000) to Saudi Arabia.

In June, 2001, Musharraf appointed himself president. A summit in July with Prime Minister Vajpayee of India proved unfruitful and ended on a bitter note. Following the September terrorist attacks on the United States that were linked to Osama bin Laden, the United States ended its sanctions on Pakistan and sought its help in securing bin Laden from the Taliban government of Afghanistan, but Pakistan proved unable to influence the Taliban, who had received support from Pakistan since the mid-1990s. Pakistan permitted U.S. planes to cross its airspace and U.S. forces to be based there during the subsequent military action against Afghanistan. These moves provoked sometimes violent anti-U.S. demonstrations erupted in Pakistani cities, particularly in border areas where many Afghan refugees and Pathans live. In response, the government cracked down on the more militant Islamic fundamentalist groups.

After terror attacks by Pakistani-based guerrillas on Indian government buildings in late 2001, India threatened to go to war with Pakistan unless all guerrilla attacks were ended. As Pakistan moved haltingly to suppress such groups the crisis escalated, but in Jan., 2002, Musharraf attacked religious extremism and its affect on Pakistani society, and stated that no group engaging in terrorism would be tolerated. A crackdown on such groups was complicated by strong popular Pakistani support for guerrillas fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, but many Pakistanis also objected to the Islamic fundamentalism espoused by many of the guerrillas and their supporters. In mid-2002 Pakistan's army established garrisons in a number of tribal areas for the first time since independence.

Also in January, Musharraf announced plans for national and provincial legislative elections in Oct., 2002, while indicating that he intended to remain in office. In April, he called for a referendum on extending his rule for five more years. Most national political parties called for a boycott of the referendum, and turnout appeared low in many locations; Musharraf claimed a 50% turnout, with a 98% yes vote. In August he imposed 29 constitutional amendments designed to make his rule impervious to political opposition in parliament.

Meanwhile, tensions with India again reached the brink of war in May, as a result of escalating attacks by Muslim militants in India. Concern that a conflict might evolve into nuclear warfare prompted international mediation, and the crisis eased after Pakistan stopped state-sponsored guerrilla infilitration across the line of control in Kashmir. The fighting in Afghanistan, violence and political turmoil in Pakistan, and tension with India hurt the Pakistani economy, particularly the export textile and apparel industries.

Parliamentary elections in Oct., 2002, resulted in a setback for Musharraf, as the Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PML-Q; renamed the Pakistan Muslim League [PML] in 2004), which supported him, placed second in terms of the seats it won. Bhutto's PPP placed first, and a generally anti-American Islamic fundamentalist coalition was a strong third and also won control of the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), where the legislature subsequently approved (June, 2003) the establishment of Islamic law. Zafarullah Khan Jamali, the PML-Q leader, was narrowly elected Pakistan's prime minister. Tensions with India further eased in 2003, and midway through the year diplomatic relations were restored.

In Dec., 2003, two attempts were made to assassinate Musharraf, but both failed. That same month he sealed an agreement with the Islamic parties to pass a modified version of the constitutional amendments he had imposed in Aug., 2002. He accepted some limitations on his powers, and he agreed to give up his post as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Other opposition parties denounced the deal.

Following revelations in the news media concerning the transfer of Pakistani nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, Abdul Qadeer Khan in Feb., 2004, admitted that he overseen such transfers from the late 1980s until 2000. The Pakistani government said that Khan, who had led its nuclear weapons program for a quarter century, had sold the technology for personal gain, but missiles parts were transferred at the same time from North Korea to Pakistan, leading international arms experts and others to believe that the government was at the very least aware of the transfers. Khan, revered by many Pakistanis as the “father of the Islamic bomb,” was pardoned by President Musharraf.

In Mar., 2004, Pakistan's military began operations against foreign Islamic militants in South Waziristan, but local militants who regarded the attacks as a breach of local autonomy joined in fighting against government forces. The fighting continued into 2005, when operations were also begun in North Waziristan. Agreements with tribal leaders in both regions ended military operations in Waziristan in late 2006. Fighting also occurred in Baluchistan, where local tribes demanding a greater share in the provinces mineral wealth and an end of the stationing of military forces there mounted a series of attacks that continued into 2006. Meanwhile, in Apr., 2004, a bill was passed creating a national security council, consisting of military and civilian leaders, to advise the government on matters of national interest. Creation of the council gave the military an institutionalized voice in national affairs.

Prime Minister Jamali resigned and the cabinet was dissolved in June, after Jamali lost the support of the president. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a close political ally of Musharraf, became interim prime minister until Shaukat Aziz, the finance minister in the outgoing cabinet and Musharraf's choice to succeed Jamali, was elected to the national assembly and took office (Aug., 2004). In Oct., 2004, the governing coalition passed legislation permitting Musharraf to remain chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, despite the president's earlier pledge to resign from the post, and at the end of the year Musharraf announced he would not resign.

In Apr., 2005, Musharraf visited India, and the two nations agreed to increase cross-border transport links, including in Kashmir, and to work to improve trade between them. Passage (July, 2005) by the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) government of a law calling for Islamic moral policing was challenged by the national government, and the supreme court declared the legislation unconstitutional. A similar but somewhat weaker bill was passed in 2006 and again challenged. An earthquake in Oct., 2005, caused widespread devastation in N Pakistan, particularly in Kashmir, killed more than 73,000 and injured nearly as many, and left an estimated 3 million homeless. Many victims in remote areas were slow to receive aid when those areas became practically inaccessible as a result of damage to roads combined with inadequate alternative transportation.

In 2006 relations with Afghanistan became increasingly strained as Afghan officials accused Pakistan of allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to use bordering areas of Pakistan, particularly Baluchistan around Quetta, as safe havens and to send forces and weapons across border into Afghanistan. After a series of bomb attacks (July, 2006) in Mumbai, India, that India asserted were linked to Pakistani security forces, peace talks were suspended between the two nations, but they resumed in late 2006 and an agreement designed to prevent an accidental nuclear war between India and Pakistan was signed in Feb., 2007.

In Mar., 2007, Musharraf suspended Pakistan's chief justice for misuse of authority; the justice had conducted investigations into human rights abuses by Pakistan's security forces and was regarded as independent of the government. While the chief justice challenged the move in the courts, Pakistani lawyers and judges denounced the move as unconstitutional, and they and opposition parties mounted demonstrations in support fo the chief justice, believing that the president was attempting to remove him as a prelude to extending his presidency beyond the end of 2007. A planned rally in Karachi in support of the chief justice led to two days of violence in May in which those who died were largely opposition activists; the violence provoked additional opposition demonstrations and strikes. In July, the supreme court ruled that the chief justice's suspension was illegal and that he should be reinstated. In June, 2007, there was devastating flooding in Baluchistan after a cyclone struck the coast; some 2 million were affected by the floodwaters.

In July, Pakistani security forces stormed an Islamabad mosque that had become a focus for Islamic militants; more than 70 persons died. Militants responded with a series of bombings and other attacks in the following weeks, and fighting again broke out in Waziristan. In September, bin Laden called for jihad against the Musharraf government, and the following month the government sent troops against militants in the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Despite the government's actions in Swat, the Pakistani Pashtun militants, who became loosely allied as the Taliban Movement of Pakistan in late 2007, became more powerful beginning in 2008.

Meanwhile, with parliamentary elections due by Jan., 2008, former prime ministers Sharif and Bhutto made plans to return from exile. Sharif, who returned in September, was immediately deported, but after an October court ruling he was allowed to return in November. Following negotiations with the government, Bhutto returned in October, surviving an attempted assassination the day of her return that killed more than 130 persons. Musharraf was reelected president the same month, but the official declaration of the result was postponed until after the supreme court ruled on whether he was permitted to run while remaining army chief. Before the court could issue its ruling, Musharraf declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution, and dismissed the members of the court who seemed likely to rule against him. The challenges against his reelection were then dismissed, and later in the month Musharraf resigned as army chief.

In December, emergency rule was ended; late in the month Bhutto was assassinated, possibly by Islamists, after a campaign rally. (A UN report released in 2010 said that security had been inadequate and that the investigation into her murder had been bungled by the police and hindered by Pakistan's secret intelligence agencies.) Several days of unrest followed her death, and the government postponed the January elections to Feb., 2008.

Bhutto's PPP and Sharif's PML-N won the largest blocs of seats in the election, and agreed to form a coalition; Yousaf Raza Gilani, of the PPP, became prime minister in March. The election was a striking setback for Musharraf, and also for the Islamist parties. In May, however, the PML-N withdrew from the government over a disagreement concerning the restoration of powers to the judiciary; the PPP wanted some limitations imposed while the PML-N supported fully restoring judicial powers. (The PML-N briefly returned to the government in August.) Relations were further strained with Afghanistan in July, 2008, when Afghanistan's President Karzai accused Pakistani agents of being behind a bomb attack against the Indian embassy in Kabul.

In Aug., 2008, the governing coalition announced that it planned to begin impeachment proceedings against Mushurraf; the move was seen as driven especially by Sharif's PML-N. As preparations for the impeachment proceedings advanced, Musharraf announced his resignation as president. The following month Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected president. The new government was faced with increased militant Islamist threats—including festering conflicts with militants (fighting resumed in Swat in July, intensified in Bajaur, in the Tribal Areas, in August, and by November had spread to Mohmand, also in the Tribal Areas), an assassination attempt against the prime minister, and a suicide bomb attack on an Islamabad hotel (Sept., 2008) that resulted in many casualties—and a financial meltdown that left the country close to defaulting on its considerable debt.

September also saw increased tensions between Pakistani forces and U.S. forces in Afghanistan after U.S. and Afghan forces conducted a ground raid against Islamists in Pakistan, and Pakistan protested against ongoing U.S. missile strikes against militant targets in Pakistan's Tribal Areas. The Nov., 2008, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, by Islamists of Pakistani origin, led to Indian demands that Pakistan take action against those that India said were linked to the terrorism and to increased Indo-Pakistani tensions. Pakistan later (Feb., 2009) acknowledged that the attack had been launched from Pakistan, and said it had arrested a number of persons connected to the attack. In 2010, however, India accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of having assisted in the planning of the attacks. Also in Nov., 2008, the International Monetary Fund approved a $7.6 billion loan package to Pakistan, enabling the country to avoid defaulting on its bond payments.

In Feb., 2009, the government agreed to the establishment of Islamic law in Swat in exchange for a permanent cease-fire. Militants refused, however, to lay down their weapons, and some moved in subsequent weeks into neighboring districts in North West Frontier Prov, where they were opposed by government forces. The Swat-based militants also denounced the Pakistani legal system as un-Islamic. Islamic militants also mounted bombings in a number of major Pakistani cities in early 2009.

In Mar., 2009, growing demonstrations led Zardari to agree to restore the chief justice to office; the government also subsequently announced it would appeal the banning of Sharif and his brother from politics. The supreme court overturned the ban in May, and in July it ruled that Musharraf's emergency rule had been unconstitutional and illegal. In April, the government received pledges of $5.2 billion in foreign aid (over two years) to help finance social programs.

As government forces moved to restore control over areas near Swat, the situation in Swat deteriorated, and in May the military mounted a major offensive against the militants there. In subsequent weeks Islamic militants in response mounted a number of suicide bomb attacks in Pakistani cities, and fighting also intensified in Waziristan and other areas. Some 2 million people were displaced by the fighting. The fighting in Swat was declared largely over by late July and by September four fifths of the residents had returned to Swat. Militant attacks continued in Pakistani cities, however, and in Oct., 2009, the military launched a major offensive against militants based in South Waziristan; after some two weeks of fighting militants largely pulled back, ceding most of their main bases to the military by mid-November. In Mar., 2010, an offensive was launched in Orakzai agency in the Tribal Areas, against militants believed to have fled there from South Waziristan; some 200,000 people were displaced by the fighting. Fighting continued also in Bajaur and other parts of the Tribal Areas.

In Dec., 2009, the supreme court ruled illegal a 2007 Musharraf decree that had declared an amnesty on corruption cases. Benazir Bhutto and the PPP had sought the amnesty in order to end prosecutions begun under Prime Minister Sharif that they asserted were politically motivated, but some 8,000 government officials, politicians, and others were ultimately absolved by the decree. The court also called for any case that was derailed by the decree to be reopened. Pakistan and India resumed talks in Feb., 2010; it was the first meeting since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and agreed a year later to restart formal peace talks. In Apr., 2010, Pakistan adopted constitutional changes that reduced the powers of the president and increased those of the prime minister and parliament, making the president a largely ceremonial head of state; the powers of the provinces were also increased, and the North-West Frontier Province was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Beginning in late July, the monsoon season resulted in devastating floods of unprecedented proportions along the Indus and its tributaries that impacted, to a greater or lesser degree, all of the country's provinces and submerged roughly one fifth of its land area. Some 20 million people, the vast majority of them farmers, were affected by the floods, which continued in some areas through September. Some 1,800 died, and the damage was estimated at $9.7 billion. Zadari, who left the country during the crisis, was increasingly unpopular as a result, and the scale of the disaster overwhelmed the government's ability to respond.

Pakistan's government, which was in financial difficulties before the floods, was faced with estimated rebuilding and recovery costs of $30 billion. By December the financial difficulties threatened the government when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) withdrew from the governing coalition over an impending fuel price increase. Prime Minister Gilani was forced to roll back the increase in early January in order to regain MQM's support, and a sales tax overhaul—a condition imposed by the IMF for the release of additional loans—was postponed. The first week of January also saw the assassination of the governor of Punjab because of his support for reforms to Pakistan's blasphemy laws; in March the minorities minister was similarly killed.

In May, 2011, Osama bin Laden, who was in hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was killed there by U.S. commandos, leading to tense relations between Pakistan and the United States; in July the U.S. government announced significant cuts in U.S. aid to Pakistan. In Sept., 2011, severe monsoon flooding again hit the country, mainly in Sind. Relations with the United States were further strained in November after U.S. forces, under unclear circumstances during nighttime operations, launched deadly air attacks on Pakistani forces by the Afghanistan border.

In early 2012 the Pakistani supreme court sought to force the prime minister to ask Swiss officials to reopen a corruption case against President Zadari; the case was among those affected by the 2007 amnesty that the court overturned in 2009. Prime Minister Gilani refused, arguing that the president had immunity, leading the court to convict Gilani of contempt in Apr., 2012. The court then disqualified Gilani as a member of parliament and prime minister in June. Raja Pervez Ashraf, the minister for water and power and a PPP member, subsequently succeeded Gilani as prime minister; Ashraf subsequently also refused to ask the Swiss to reopen the Zadari corruption case. Ashraf's arrest, on corruption charges relating to his previous post, was ordered by the supreme court in Jan., 2013, but anticorruption officials called the charges questionable and refused to arrest him.

Early 2013 was marked by deadly bombings by Sunni extremists that targeted Shiites in Quetta. In Mar., 2013, parliament was dissolved in anticipation of the May elections; it was the first time that the Pakistani legislature had completed a full term. Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, a retired senior judge, became caretaker prime minister. Also in March, Musharraf returned to the country from his self-imposed exile abroad with the intention of running for a parliamentary seat. He was disqualified from running, however, and arrested on charges related to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto; he later was charged with other crimes, including treason. The PML-N won a sizable plurality in the May elections, and with the support of some independent members of parliament Nawaz Sharif became prime minister (for the third time) in June. In July, Mamnoon Hussain, a political ally of Sharif, was elected to succeed Zardari as president.

In May, 2014, the government attacked militants in North Waziristan, and launched a larger offensive in June that continued into 2016; an estimated 1.5 million people were displaced by the fighting. The Pakistan Taliban, which had ended a truce several weeks prior to the May attack and split into factions favoring and opposed to a peace agreement with the government, launched its own attacks, most notably against Karachi's airport in June and against a Peshawar school (in which more than 130 children were killed) in December. Attacks diminished greatly in 2015 after army successes in its campaign, but 2016 saw several especially deadly attacks by a number of groups, including a suicide bombing in Lahore in March that targeted Christians and an attack in in Quetta in October that targeted police cadets.

Beginning in Aug., 2014, supporters of opposition politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahirul Qadri mounted a series of protests against Sharif's government that at times involved tens of thousands; the protests continued into October but failed to force the prime minister's resignation. In Dec., 2015, the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers met in what was seen as a potential warming of relations, but expections were tempered in Jan., 2016, after Kashmiri separatists widely regarded as sponsored by Pakistan's intelligence agency attacked an Indian air force base. Tensions further increased after a separatist attack against an army base in Kashmir in Sept., 2016, with recurring exchanges of fire between Pakistan and Indian forces in Kashmir until late May, 2018.

Revelations (2016) arising from the publication of the Panama Papers led to an investigation, overseen by the supreme court, into Prime Minister Sharif's family's wealth and possible corruption. In July, 2017, the supreme court disqualified him from public office, and he and his government resigned; Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, an ally of Sharif and the petroleum minister, succeeded him as prime minister. Legislation incorporating the Tribal Areas into the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was passed in May, 2018, with all aspects of the merger to be completed by 2020.

In June, Nasir-ul-Mulk, a former supreme court chief justice, became caretaker prime minister in preparation for the parliamentary elections. The Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf party (PTI), led by former cricket star Imran Khan, won a plurality in the July balloting, but the military had shown favoritism toward the PTI prior to the election, and some opposition leaders denounced the election as rigged. Khan subsequently formed a coalition government with a number of smaller parties and became prime minister. In September, Arif Alvi, an ally of Khan's, was elected president. India launched an air strike against Pakistan in Feb., 2019, after a suicide bombing in Kashmir killed 46 Indian paramilitary police; Pakistan retaliated with its own air strike. There also was significant skirmishing in Kashmir before tensions subsequently eased somewhat; there was an escalation in situation on the Kashmir border in Apr., 2020.

The Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), a nonviolent organization focused on military violence against Pashtuns and ending the militarization of the former Tribal Areas and removing the landmines there, became increasingly prominent in 2018 despite a blackout on media coverage of its protests. It has been accused by officials of being foreign-funded terrorists (though no evidence of that has been provided), and in mid-2019 the military and government launched a crackdown against the PTM.

In Sept., 2020, a broad group of opposition parties, including the PML-N, PPP, and PTM, formed an antigovernment alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), and called for an end to military interference in politics. Soon after the PML-N's Shehbaz Sharif, the PPP's Zardari, and some of their family members were arrested and indicted on corruption charges. In October, the PDM began mounting demonstrations against the government.

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