Catastrophe or a Last Chance in Pakistan?

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

November 5, 2007

Saturday night’s declaration of a State of Emergency” in Pakistan—a euphemism for another spell of martial law–comes as a further shock to America’s South Asia and anti-terrorist policies. First, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, informed President Bush that the vaunted nuclear agreement with India was in trouble. This may be a “deal too far,” in that the domestic politics of the US and India combined to make it politically unpalatable both for an important swath of the political elite in India and a Congress controlled by Democrats. This failure can be chalked up to the difficulty that two open democracies have when they try to push through an innovative policy: anti-Americanism in India is still strong among the Indian political elite, and despite the American non-proliferation community’s respect for a rising India, it is still skeptical of India’s nuclear ambitions. And, of course, both the Indian left and American Democrats take some pleasure in humiliating President Bush.

However, this failure pales into insignificance compared with the catastrophic course taken by American policy in Pakistan. Musharraf’s recent coup against his own government—and that was what it was—was in good part a result of American pressure on him to hold free and fair elections as well as the actions of a Supreme Court that suddenly began to challenge the military’s dominant position and a dramatic increase in terrorist violence directed against the Pakistani military itself. Musharraf’s low opinion of Washington was symbolized by the failure to wait until the CENTCOM chief had left the country before announcing that the constitution would be suspended and elections deferred.

Pakistan was once America’s “most allied of allies.” But the Bush administration, whose major foreign policy initiative in South Asia was towards India (a recent gaffe by a Bush administration official even ranked India above Pakistan), has weakened the relationship. Administration officials have gloated that they coerced Pakistan into signing on to the ill-named war on terrorism. In return, Islamabad played a double game regarding its participation in this struggle. Its intelligence services supported the Taliban, while only reluctantly going after the al Qaeda forces embedded in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The failure to round up the Taliban leadership was a matter of state policy: the Pakistan army still regards India as its major threat, and the Taliban are used to counterbalance Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan would like a stable Afghanistan, but it does not believe that Hamid Karzai is the man to lead that country, and Pakistani generals are certain that the US will sooner or later pull out of Afghanistan, leaving the Indians as Karzai’s major prop. As for al Qaeda, the Pakistan army is unprepared to engage in counterinsurgency warfare within its own borders; no wonder several US senators have stated that the US ought to go in to the FATA if Pakistan cannot, and round up the known al Qaeda (and Taliban) leadership.

Why has the US stayed with Musharraf long after it became evident that Pakistan was not an effective partner? There was apparently a belief that he was a truly outstanding leader, and if not another Ataturk or Ayub Khan, that at least he was doing the best that he could. Thus, there was no thought of making our multi-billion dollar aid program conditional upon performance. So in effect we’ve, wasted several billions of dollars, becoming Musharraf’s ATM machine, allowing him to build up a military establishment that was irrelevant to his (and our) real security threat, yet presiding over an intensification of anti-American feelings in Pakistan itself, and failing to provide adequate aid to Pakistan’s failing social and educational sectors.

Musharraf’s coup does nothing to improve the Pakistan army’s performance in matters of vital concern to the United States. It is unlikely that the army can learn how to do counterinsurgency quickly; and the US is hardly the country to instruct it in the nuances of such operations.

While counterinsurgency requires more political than military input, Musharraf believes that politics is a branch of public administration. He is unlikely to develop an alliance with those Pushtun nationalists who are threatened by the Talibanized Pushtun religious fanatics because doing so runs the risk of encouraging Pushtun separatism and weakening Punjabi domination in Pakistan.

The best scenario one can conjure up is that Musharraf will move towards carefully controlled elections—perhaps in the middle of next year—when the situation on the ground is stabilized. He has muzzled the pesky Supreme Court and the more vocal elements of the press; the protests by Journalists without Borders and the Lahore Bar Association will not make much of a difference. Benazir Bhutto, now the darling of the Administration (which foolishly ignored her for seven years), has been muted in her comments on Musharraf’s second coup; so far her arrangement with Musharraf still stands, and she hopes that between her new-found friends in Washington and Musharraf’s need to get a civilian figurehead for his government, that she will come to power again.

Her years in exile have made Benazir a realist: she believes that Pakistan cannot move overnight from dictatorship to democracy, and hopes that the next election will enable her to come to at least a share of power. Her supporters also understand that the threat to Pakistan from the Islamists is mortal; as Pakistan’s most secular party, the Pakistan People’s party regards itself as better-equipped than the Islamist-leaning Nawaz Sharif to join with the army in an assault on the violent extremists.

Thus, if things go as well as they can, carefully controlled elections will be held, Benazir will come to office, Musharraf will be able to retire from the army, leaving it in the hands of close and trusted advisors, and the army and Benazir, together, will tackle the extremist problem.

There are at least two major problems with this reasonably rosy scenario. First, the terrorists and insurgents of Pakistan may not cooperate, and surrender meekly to Pakistani forces. Recent battles over the Lal Masjid, in FATA, and now in Swat show that there is a large and dedicated cadre of true militants who are more than a match for the Pakistan army in a tactical environment. The PPP is weakest where the militants are strongest, and cannot be counted on to provide the political guidance to tackle them. The militants are not interested in ministerial bungalows in Islamabad, they want to turn Pakistan into a base from which they can attack other soft Muslim and Western states (and India), and even lay their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Musharraf may have sidelined the journalists, lawyers, and judges, but he has yet to demonstrate that Pakistan has the will, or the capacity, to develop a comprehensive counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency strategy. The recent operations in Swat, once a tranquil backwater but now under the control of Islamist fanatics, was done, according to press reports, without any regard for the refugees and innocent civilians; if past experience is any guide, the Pakistan army’s operations will merely serve to increase recruitment to the ranks of the militants.

Second, bringing Benazir in to the “system” will be bitterly opposed by Musharraf’s civilian supporters. They detest her populist approach, they have no rejoinder to the developmental and educational agenda that she has set out, and only talk of how many roads and bridges Pakistan has built under this and previous military regimes. It is hard to imagine that they will work with a Bhutto government, and she may find it hard to work with them. As one Pakistan general remarked to me several years ago, the first preference of Pakistani politicians is that they govern the state, their second preference is that the military rules.

Thus, the best scenario—a brief emergency, a short election campaign, carefully controlled elections, and power-sharing with a willing Benazir Bhutto, is what Musharraf is probably going after. However, other, more desperate scenarios have to be examined. I looked at several of these in my 2004 book, The Idea of Pakistan, but two in particular must be noted.

One is that the army itself might lose its coherence. It is a multi-ethnic army, derived from the old British Indian army, and from time to time it, like its predecessor, has had ethnic-based mutinies (the most notable being the revolt of the Bengali elements of all three services in 1970). At present about eighteen percent of the Pakistan army are Pushtuns or of Pushtun origin (from Punjab). There are reports of officers refusing to attack targets, and the astonishing case, still unexplained, of nearly 300 officers and jawans surrendering to the militants in Waziristan—where they are still being held hostage.

Second, Pakistan could begin to crack apart along ethnic lines. The non-Punjabi provinces (including the Frontier) resent Punjabi domination, the latter is existential, given the fact that Punjab contains nearly half of the population and provides most of the army. But American-sponsored attempts to bring the Frontier into Pakistan’s “mainstream” will have the effect of accelerating separatism. The same is true of Balochistan, and the Sind is historically resentful of Punjabi domination.

Thus, in the absence of a time machine, which would allow the Bush administration to roll back history and reconsider its Pakistan policy, it looks as if the US is going to be in for a rough ride. Musharraf, and his military and civilian advisors, have zero trust in Washington, cruelly evident by their rejection of American pleas to hold off this declaration of emergency. They knew that the situation was getting out of hand, and when America publicly and repeatedly asked Pakistan to hold free and fair elections it asked for too much too late. The US should have pressed for a broadening of Pakistani politics much earlier, and failing to do so means that Washington has no alternative but to ride the Musharraf tiger to the end—whatever that may be.

Meanwhile, the U.S. may yet decide that a cross-border attack upon a known al Qaeda or Taliban target is well worth the risk of angering Musharraf; after all, there’s not much he can do about it, and the recent crackdown will at least temporarily silence critics. But that is far from a coherent policy.

What can be done? Comparisons with the Shah are premature, but Washington needs to talk to the experts (they have been ignored in favor a personalized diplomacy), it needs to consult with other concerned countries (including India, Iran, and China, not just the British), it still needs to work with Musharraf and help him achieve a broader political base (which may not be possible if he remains persuaded that he is Pakistan’s sole responsible leader), and above all it needs to ask how its short term goals (the destruction of al Qaeda element residing in the FATA) can be reconciled with the long term goal—now perhaps out of reach—of a stable, if not wholly democratic Pakistan.