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.

Rather than being a bulwark against extremism, Musharraf's rule has fueled the "Talibanization" of Pakistani society. The country's largest Islamist coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, expanded its political base in the 2002 elections and, until recently, ruled two of the country's four provinces. It has benefited from the intelligence service's support and electoral manipulation to garner twice the vote it did under civilian rule and become a force in national politics. And, as he has allied himself with Islamist political forces, Musharraf has waged political warfare against their democratic counterparts, forcing civilian leaders like Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif into exile and employing the resources of the state to break their parties. By preventing the moderate opposition from freely taking part in elections, Musharraf created a vacuum that could only be filled by extremists.

It is true that Osama bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan than Musharraf--but Bhutto and Sharif are each significantly more popular than either, and analysts believe their parties would prevail in free elections. Indeed, the massive crowds that greeted Bhutto's return to Pakistan from exile demonstrated her strength. She threatens the religious extremists--who she argues have grown stronger thanks to the connivance of the military regime--as demonstrated by their attempt to assassinate her last month.

American support has given Pakistan's military regime legitimacy. Pakistani officials boast that Musharraf holds power with the support of "the Army, Allah, and America." Since 2001, the United States has provided more than $10 billion in assistance, nearly all in military funding and hardware. This has produced real gains in the war on terror, but has also empowered the armed forces at the expense of civil society and given Musharraf the belief, implicit in his declaration of martial law in defiance of U.S. opposition, that America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. The United States is now faced with an autocratic regime that holds Washington hostage to its misguided political choices, and a large, liberal middle class that believes America has taken the wrong side in Pakistani politics.

Pakistan is not a failing state held together by military rule. It is a state in crisis because its military regime is illegitimate. Pakistanis do not want the army to further arbitrate the country's political life; they want its subversion of civilian institutions to end and a democratic alternative to emerge. At the same time, the officer corps has an abiding interest in getting out of politics to salvage its reputation, now under assault thanks to Musharraf's heavy-handedness, as the nation's most respected institution, one that can be an effective partner to America in the war on terror.

Pakistan needs a compact between civilian and military leaders of the kind Chilean democrats secured a generation ago. Negotiations enabled a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Chile after decades of dictatorship. Democrats succeeded because military rule had been discredited by brutality against civilians and the suppression of dissent, and the officer corps had come to believe that a return to the barracks was the best way to restore its professional integrity. Chile's middle class had expanded thanks to strong economic growth under the military regime, and they were seeking a greater voice in politics. And the country had a history of democracy that could be invoked to help mobilize the opposition and strengthen the hand of civilian leaders in the negotiations. Finally, Chile's democratic leaders showed a willingness to allow the military to retain a strong policy role under civilian leadership, and the international community gave them moral and material support in their struggle. All these conditions are present in Pakistan today.

Washington has been promoting a power-sharing arrangement between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, whose popularity likely would allow her to become prime minister following national elections. The United States must be careful not to manipulate Pakistan's internal politics in ways that further discredit us in the eyes of the public. But the U.S. aim is a liberal one: Incorporating Pakistan's most popular political party into the military regime following free and fair elections would expand the political space for democratic forces to operate and create a new balance of power between civilian and military leaders. It could lay the foundation for a negotiated settlement that diminishes the military's role in politics.

The Pakistani army also needs such a deal to salvage its prestige after the latest crisis. "Pervez Musharraf has done what none of Islamabad's worst adversaries, including India, could imagine, let alone promote: robbing the army of its political legitimacy," notes the Indian Express. To win the long war on terrorism, we need the Pakistani military to be a partner respected for its professionalism, not reviled for its usurpation of political power.

Strong public expressions of American support, rather than mixed messages from our civilian and military leaders, would strengthen the hand of Pakistani democrats in the face of unchecked military power. If we publicly support civilian leaders, they will be able to play the "America card" in negotiations with the generals. It will also signal Pakistan's moderate majority that we stand with them. With our strong encouragement, America's many friends in the Pakistani officer corps might also press Musharraf for a democratic outcome that preserves our military partnership. America could also mediate military aid through democratic channels following new elections, giving Pakistan's civilian leaders oversight of U.S. assistance programs and making the officer corps stakeholders in the success of civilian government.

Pakistan's army is an important ally in the war on terror. But America needs a policy towards Pakistan, not just its army. We cannot win this war without the support of the country's moderate majority. "If you want to take the country away from Talibanization, these are the people who can do it, the secular middle class," as one Pakistani lawyer told the New York Times. American support for military rule in Pakistan is alienating our natural allies in the country--the lawyers who brave police truncheons on behalf of constitutional rule, the reporters who refuse to be censored by men in uniform, and the professionals and workers who just want to live in a society under law, where economic prosperity holds out a better future than the otherworldly promises of religious fanatics. In Pakistan, our true interest lies in working with civilian and military leaders for a democratic outcome to the current crisis that gives the moderate majority a stake and a voice in our common struggle against the terrorists.

Daniel Twining is the Fulbright/Oxford Scholar at Oxford
University and a transatlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.