The Magazine

Our Pakistan Challenge

Something good can come out of the emergency.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By DANIEL TWINING
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Pakistan is the swing state in the worldwide struggle against Islamic terrorists. Its decisive position makes Pervez Musharraf's imposition of martial law on November 3 a hard test for American foreign policy.

Musharraf moved to preempt a constitutional ruling that would have challenged his dual role as army chief and Pakistan's president. In suspending the constitution and declaring emergency rule, he usurped the powers of the judiciary, parliament, and the press and moved swiftly to round up thousands of political opponents. "Everything that is happening today is illegal," declared deposed supreme court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry as he was placed under house arrest. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto called it Pakistan's "darkest day."

Musharraf's actions, though, clarify America's options. While Pakistan may be a vital ally and a nuclear power, it is also the incubator of a resurgent Taliban and the base of al Qaeda's senior leadership. Musharraf's determination to stay in power--his evisceration of the democratic opposition and flirtation with radical Islamists--has produced a growing hostility to the United States in Pakistan, an alienated middle class, a powerful Islamist movement, and a demoralized and discredited army uncertain of where its true interests lie. Above all, Musharraf's failures in the war on terror suggest that only a democratic government, working in partnership with Pakistan's armed forces, can muster the popular support to fight extremism, support our Afghan allies in the battle against the Taliban, and restore Pakistan's integrity as a stable and progressive Islamic state. America's goal must be to help civilian and military leaders there reach a new political compact that makes this possible.

Under Musharraf's leadership, the Pakistani military has fought our terrorist adversaries, and agents of al Qaeda have repeatedly tried to assassinate him. But his claim to be an effective ally in the war on terrorism was gravely undermined by his "peace accord" with Islamic extremist groups along the frontier with Afghanistan in 2006. The accord created a sanctuary on Pakistani soil for both Taliban and al Qaeda militants fighting NATO troops in Afghanistan, and U.S. intelligence assessments show that it has strengthened the Taliban's operational capabilities. After his coup, Musharraf released 28 members of the Taliban in a prisoner exchange and reinstated another sanctuary agreement with Islamist tribal leaders in South Waziristan allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Such decisions call into question the extent of Musharraf's true commitment to combating Islamic terrorism. They suggest a deliberate strategy of balancing concessions to different constituencies to enable him to stay in power--apparently a higher priority than defeating the terrorists. The general has done just enough to satisfy his American patrons that he is in the fight against the jihadists, but never quite enough to alienate his Islamist constituency--including the members of his intelligence service who support the Taliban. (Afghan president Hamid Karzai has accused Musharraf of playing this double game for years.) With India, Musharraf has taken steps to resolve the Kashmir conflict and to curb terrorist attacks across the line of control that divides the contested region. But he has never disrupted the Kashmiri militants' training camps or their supply lines within Pakistan, and they continue to conduct operations against India by way of Bangladesh and Nepal.

Musharraf's tactics within his own country are a mirror of the balancing act he performs abroad--promising, on the one hand, an "enlightened moderation" that appeals to Pakistan's liberal elites, while, on the other, cultivating Islamist politicians and wielding autocratic powers against political opponents. Today, faced with American pressure, he walks a fine line to preserve his position as president, promising to stand down as army chief, but only after being sworn in as president, and only then allowing new elections--a scheme the supreme court majority he sacked believed to be unconstitutional. He has replaced these justices with loyalists willing to endorse his plans.

Musharraf says he was forced to declare martial law by the threat of an Islamist takeover. But he has used his emergency powers only to eviscerate the democratic political opposition. Those targeted for immediate arrest following the suspension of constitutional rule were not the extremists whose madrassas have flourished under military rule or the tribal leaders in cahoots with the Taliban on the frontier. Instead, the police rounded up democratic activists, opposition politicians, human rights advocates, lawyers, and judges. "It would be hard to imagine a group less threatening to the security of Pakistan," said U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson.