Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq has turned to at least temporary advantage last month's hijacking of a Pakistani airliner, first to Afghanistan and then to Syria.
He has used the seizure of the plane to discredit his most threatening foes at home and to tighten his authoritarian grip on Pakistan. Apparently his aim is win time to resolve a roster of sensitive questions.
* Whether Pakistan should accept US aid and the increased role that the Reagan administration would like to give it in overall US strategy to meet the Soviet threat in Southwest Asia along the arc from the Bosporus to the Khyber Pass.
* Whether Pakistan should accept an active role as conduit for outside aid to Afghan guerrillas resisting the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan.
* To what extent Pakistan can accept closer identification with the US and the anti-Soviet resistance movement in Afghanistan without sacrificing the position it has been cultivating as one of the most important Muslim members of the nonaligned movement.
* The nature of the constitutional framework within which a united Pakistan might eventually develop healthily under a more democratically chosen government than that of General Zia -- and yet enable the minority Sindi, Baluchi, and Pushtun provinces to feel that they are not dominated by the Punjabis.
Since the hijacking, General Zia has promulgated an interim Constitution that has two immediate effects. First, it puts a virtual end to the independence of the judiciary and seems to bar the courts from limiting President Zia's martial law authority. Second, it leaves the door open for General Zia to clamp down even more toughly than hitherto on his chief civilian challenger, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
It was Mr. Bhutto whom General Zia overthrew in the coup of 1977. Two years later, General Zia acquiesced to -- his sharper critics would say arranged -- the subsequent trial and execution (in 1979) of Mr. Bhutto. Since then, Mr. Bhutto has acquired the role of martyr with a considerable segment of Pakistani opinion.
The continued appeal of the PPP, under the leadership of the late premier's wife and daughter, has contributed to Zia's twice postponing the elections he promised. The PPP took the lead in February in launching the militant Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, an association of nine opposition parties speaking unusually with one voice for an end to martial law and the holding of elections.
There followed anti-Zia demonstrations, particularly by students and professionals.
Then came the hijacking on March 2, resolved nearly two weeks later by what seemed at the time as General Zia's giving in to the hijackers. But for the moment at least, Zia has used the hijacking to stop in its tracks the mounting wave of political protest against his authoritarian martial-law regime.
The opportunity for him to do this was the apparent involvement in the seizure of the plane by a Pakistani anti-Zia guerrilla group called Al-Zulfikar (in memory of Mr. Bhutto). Al-Zulfikar's secretary-general is Mr. Bhutto's son Murtaza, who has apparently been using Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as a base from which to mount Al-Zulfikar's operations aimed at subverting the Zia-regime.
The Pakistani military authorities in Peshawar, just south of the Afghan border, said April 13 that if Murtaza Bhutto and 11 other opponents of General Zia's military government -- all believed to be in Afghanistan -- did not appear in court in Peshawar April 27, they would automatically be sentenced to 14 years at hard labor and have their property confiscated. The charges against the 12 are of subversion, sabotage and attempting to wage war on Pakistan.
The latter offense can be punished by a capital sentence. The other charges can be punished by life imprisonment. The threat of confiscation of Murtaza Bhutto's property, if carried out, would deprive his mother and sister of the residences used by them since the execution of their husband and father two years ago. (Murtaza inherited title to them from his father.) The Bhutto women are now in jail, having been among the first to be detained by the martial law authorities in a sweeping crackdown in the wake of last month's aircraft hijacking.
Since the hijacking has also come the promulgation of the new interim Constitution, making the judiciary subordinate, in effect, to the military. In the last week of March, the new Constitution was made public overnight and the judiciary called upon to take an oath of allegiance to it the next morning. When the chief justice and other senior judges demurred, Gen. Zia promptly dismissed them.
The conclusion is that Gen. Zia intends to brook no nonsense from critics or those who have reservations about his polici es.