The old saying that “things can always get worse” has never been truer than for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his former colleagues in the country’s military. Faced with rampant terrorism, growing domestic instability, an increasingly hated U.S. ally and a NATO force in Afghanistan that appears to be staying forever, Musharraf, et al. must now cope with and contain two political leaders: Asif Zardari—husband of the late Benazir Bhutto—and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose only discernable talent is looting the federal treasury (The Times [London], January 1; Dawn [Karachi], February 12; Daily Times [Lahore], February 23).
Pakistan’s military establishment has long been the sole effectively functioning institution in the country. Although troubled by corruption and ethnic, sectarian and linguistic divisions, Pakistan’s military still reliably operates in the national interest. Its officer cadre cares not only for the defense of the county against India and internal threats, but it also administers—through serving and retired officers—much of the country’s infrastructure: roads, power plants, electricity distribution, irrigation systems, ports, railroads and heavy industry. Historically, the army and its sister services claim to have had no desire to run the government, but the consistent venality, corruption and incompetence of Pakistan’s civilian politicians have repeatedly left them no option but to periodically take power through a coup.
First Tasks: Restoring Order, Bolstering National Security
While letting the newly elected political leaders deal in the tried-and-true way with the United States and the West—cheerfully making promises of “democratic reform” in return for more financial aid and weapons—Musharraf and the military can work to restore domestic order. To think that they can stop the spread of radical Islamism in Pakistan is a mistake; the process is too far advanced and Pakistan’s Saudi and Arab Peninsula bankrollers will not tolerate efforts to reverse the process. Zadari, for example, already has been convoked by the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad, Ali Saeed Awadh Aseeri, for an “important meeting” which surely outlined Riyadh’s expectations about how Zadari and his Peoples’ Democratic Party of Pakistan are to behave (The News [Islamabad], March 2). Nawaz Sharif, of course, requires no such instruction as he was exiled in Saudi Arabia and is content with doing the al-Sauds’ bidding. Pakistan’s major Sunni religious parties have also been long and easily influenced by the Saudis.
While coalition-building discussions proceed, the military and intelligence services appear to be cracking down hard on Islamists and political dissidents outside the tribal regions. The army continues mopping up operations in the Swat Valley, for example, and it is heavily deployed in urban centers to restore and maintain order in the post-election period. The services also have their hands full with continuing terrorist attacks; over the weekend of March 2-3, for example, an attack killed more than 40 people—including many tribal leaders—in the town of Darra Adamkhel about 25 miles south of Peshawar (The News, March 2).
In the tribal areas, the main goal of Musharraf and the military is to disengage to the greatest extent possible so that open warfare between the Pashtun tribes and the army does not resume. If a modus vivendi is reached, Islamabad can move more units back to the border with India—always its main enemy—and begin to restore a semblance of its traditional working relationship with Pashtun leaders through the provision of funds and weaponry. The goal of this restoration would be to turn the Pashtuns’ attention to the west, so they focus on helping their Afghan Taliban brothers and stop causing internal trouble for Islamabad. In the long run, the security of Pakistan’s western border—a key component of Pakistan’s national security strategy—depends on seeing Hamid Karzai’s government displaced by the reestablishment of an Islamist Sunni Afghan regime in Kabul.
Wild Card: Attitudes toward America
The major imponderable for Musharraf and his colleagues as they seek to re-stabilize Pakistan is the question of what may develop as a result of the now nearly universal anti-American animus of the Pakistani people. The leaders of Musharraf’s party, for example, believe they lost the election not because they backed a dictator, but because of U.S. interference in Pakistani politics and because the dictator they backed was perceived as kowtowing to Washington (The News, March 1). The Pakistani media are also claiming that the U.S. Congress is withholding funds earmarked for Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operations in an attempt to shape the creation of a new government in a way that will be favorable to U.S. interests (The Post [Lahore], March 2).
Potentially more damaging to Musharraf’s effort to right the ship, however, is the rising resentment among Pakistanis over what they believe are U.S. military operations in the country’s provinces and border regions that violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. In late February, for example, The News accused the CIA and FBI of recruiting a “vast network” of intelligence agents across the country by suborning Pakistanis to work against their own nation (The News, February 25). Some journalists and at least one minister in the current federal caretaker government—Interior Minister Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Hamid Nawaz Khan—claim that U.S. agents are promoting “lawlessness” in Pakistan by backing “militant outfits involved in terrorism in Pakistan” in an effort to press Islamabad for more counter-terrorism cooperation. While Westerners will see such claims as ridiculous, the editors of the Daily Times warned Washington that “the entire national psyche [of Pakistan] is dying to believe that the United States … is deceiving Pakistan in its overtures of friendship while in fact it is pursuing the agenda of annihilating Muslims wherever they may be found” (Daily Times, March 3).
In addition, the media is increasingly focused on what they describe as U.S. military air strikes against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in the tribal agencies. On February 23, Dawn reported that U.S. officials had “reached a quiet agreement” with Pakistani leaders, including Pakistan’s new Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, “to step up secret air strikes against suspected terrorists,” suggesting that even in the post-election period Pakistan’s military and political leaders will continue to bend to America’s will (Dawn [Karachi], February 22). Warning of “serious” anti-American reaction from Pakistanis if the strikes continue or increase, the Pakistan Observer—the voice of the interests of the Pakistani military and the Saudis—said that such sovereignty violations must not be tolerated:
Pakistan has all along been emphasizing that no one has the right to interfere in our internal affairs…. It is time for the Pakistani government to warn the Americans that such actions will not bring positive results and [will] generate more animosity… Let Pakistan deal with the militants on its side of the border in its own way with the cooperation of the locals and avoid creating problems for us as we have already suffered a lot (Pakistan Observer, March 1).
Beyond the air strikes themselves, the media is claiming that U.S. leaders have so little respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and the lives of innocent Pakistanis that American presidential politics will cause an increase in attacks inside Pakistan. Dawn, for example, argued that Pakistan was under U.S. pressure to allow stepped-up attacks as part of “a last effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before Mr. Bush leaves office” and thereby help the Republicans win the fall election (Dawn, February 22). The Pakistan Observer added that all U.S. politicians are showing “desperation” over the failure to get bin Laden, and that more attacks in Pakistan are likely because “American presidential hopefuls [of both parties] are also warning of unilateral action against the hideouts of the militants along the Durand Line” (Pakistan Observer, March 1).
The foregoing litany of problems and realities suggests that Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders are going to be preoccupied with restoring domestic stability rather than assisting the United States against the Islamists. Indeed, the country’s cohesion depends in large measure on Islamabad’s ability to shift the militants’ focus toward the U.S.-led infidel enemy in Afghanistan in order to contain Islamist violence in Pakistan. This recipe for national survival has worked for Pakistani governments in the past—during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, for example—but whether it will again remains to be seen. Whatever the future holds, it seems clear that Pakistan’s ability and willingness to assist Washington against the Taliban and al-Qaeda have passed high tide.