Musharraf’s Departure Is Good for Pakistan but Is It Too Late?

I first met General Pervez Musharraf during President Bill Clinton’s visit to Islamabad in March 2000. The President urged Musharraf, who had just seized power in a military coup, to decisively break all of Pakistan’s ties to various Islamic terrorist groups including al Qaeda, Kashmiris and the Taliban. Terrorism, he warned Musharraf, would consume Pakistan if the country continued to back jihadism in the region. Musharraf flatly refused, saying he could not afford to alienate the powerful Pashtun tribes along the border with Afghanistan nor abandon the Kashmiri cause. On al Qaeda, he was slightly more positive about helping but did nothing until after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

More than eight years later Clinton has been proven right; Pakistan has been consumed by terrorism. Last year there were 56 major suicide bombings in the country, including the attack that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. For eight years Musharraf tried to play a complex double game against terrorism, selectively helping to bring a few to justice (like al Qaeda’s tactical maestro Khalid Shaykh Muhammad) but more often tolerating the growth of a jihadist sanctuary in the country which now stretches from Baluchistan on the Indian Ocean to Azad Kashmir in the Hindu Kush and has spread deep into the major cities. Within in these badlands, al Qaeda has recovered and rebuilt its central core around Usama bin Laden, created a powerful global propaganda instrument and plots attacks against its enemies.

Musharraf twice took the subcontinent to the brink of full scale war by his policy of encouraging Kashmiri violence. The Kargil war in 1999 with India was his brainchild and it took the intervention of Clinton to find a way out before the war escalated out of control. Pakistan’s support of Kashmiri terrorists who attacked the Indian parliament in December 2001 led to a year long tense standoff with more than a million soldiers eyeball to eyeball. The standoff also diverted Pakistani attention from pursuing the defeated al Qaeda and Taliban forces leaving Afghanistan that winter, helping to ensure their survival. Now Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) is accused by both Afghanistan and India of sponsoring the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul this summer, which has again raised tensions in South Asia.

The Taliban has also recovered and now poses a greater threat to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan than at any time in the last seven years. Causalities are rising and the Taliban is carrying out increasingly bold attacks like the attempt this year to assassinate President Karzai who blames Musharraf and Pakistan for his country’s crisis. Ironically, Pakistan is the logistical hub for both the Taliban which operates from safe havens in Pakistan, and NATO which gets more than 80% of its supplies via the Pakistani port of Karachi.

This irony illustrates the dilemmas America has long faced in Pakistan in trying to persuade Pakistan to help achieve American national interests. We need Pakistani help to get to our goals but we have limited influence, depend on Pakistan in key ways, and face contradictory tendencies in Pakistani behavior. Consistently American Presidents from Eisenhower on have taken the easy way out and backed the Army, weakening the institutions of civil society in Pakistan and the rule of law. Presidents for both parties have embraced Pakistan’s military dictators and done little to help its elected civilians.

George Bush called Musharraf the indispensible man in Pakistan. Eleven billion dollars in aid followed but al Qaeda was not destroyed nor the Taliban defeated. Instead, Musharraf systematically perverted the institutions of the country’s civil society to keep himself in office. He promised to end ISI ties to terror but did not. He promised to fight extremism in the educational system but did not. He promised to build a democracy but instead sought to bend the judiciary to his will.

In the end, that is what did him in. The Pakistani lawyers fought him in the streets and the military decided he had become a liability. When he gave up his uniform after months of delay, the loyalty of the officers’ corps seems to have gone with it. The decision to impeach him—driven relentlessly by Nawaz Sharif, the man he ousted in 1999—became unstoppable as more and more Pakistanis wanted some kind of accountability for this dictator.

It is not clear yet if resignation will be enough. The Pakistani Information Minister, Sherry Rahman, says the government does not want to pursue revenge. Others say he should be allowed to go like Richard Nixon departed, discredited but not tried. But some will argue that Pakistan will never move toward lasting democracy if there is not some accountability for a general who seized power in a coup and then perverted election after election to stay in office. This is an issue Pakistanis will need to decide, not Americans.

For the United States, the question is will the civilian government now be capable of pulling itself together effectively and pursue a strategy to defeat the extremist terrorist groups. It is far from clear that they can do so. Pakistan’s civil society has been badly damaged by military interference over the last sixty years of independence. The rule of law has been seriously eroded. Building a proper judiciary, a clean law enforcement system and keeping the military out of politics will be major challenges. The elected leadership has little if any control over the intelligence apparatus and failed in an attempt to gain control last month. The elected leadership is plagued by accusations of corruption, many well founded.

The question is will this latest Pakistani attempt (the third try in 60 years) at transitioning from military rule to some kind of effective democracy succeed or is it too late for Pakistan? Americans have a vital interest in trying to ensure Pakistan is not a failing state with nuclear weapons and home to al Qaeda; we should be clear that this is the last Pakistani military dictator we ever support.

Bruce Riedel recently completed a new book, The Search for al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future (Brookings Press, 2008), which will be released this fall. Mr. Riedel and General Musharraf are both graduates of the same senior staff school, the Royal College of Defense Studies in London.