In Pervez Musharraf, the Bush administration has bet on a leader whose incompetence mirrors its own. Pakistan's hapless military dictator can't seem to do anything right: stop Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan, catch Osama bin Laden, settle the Kashmir dispute with India, or follow through on promised democratic and educational reforms. So why does the Bush administration treat him as if he's the only game in town?
Until recently, the White House's biggest fear was that its ally would be assassinated. That fear was well-founded -- Musharraf has survived at least four attempts on his life by jihadist groups. But more recently, it was the general who shot himself in the foot, and it's his political survival that's in question.
Musharraf's latest troubles began on March 9th, when he ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court (presumably because he wouldn't comply with plans to rig the upcoming elections, which Musharraf has promised will be free and fair). Angry public protests broke out, led by lawyers and urban opposition groups fed up with military rule.
Commenting one week later about the protests, the State Department's Sean McCormack offered incongruous praise for Musharraf's phantom "democratic reforms."
"Is there more to do? Yes, there is, absolutely," the spokesman acknowledged, before going beyond the niceties of diplomacy: "But President Musharraf is acting in the best interest of Pakistan and the Pakistani people. He is the freely -- " here McCormack caught himself, clearly realizing that "elected" was the wrong word to describe a self-appointed military ruler. McCormack instead hailed Musharraf as "a Pakistani patriot" who "clearly believes that working closely with the United States as well as others in the war on terror is important."
His last words were, of course, the real point. Why, after all, does the United States bend over backwards to support a screw-up? With the Middle East in flames and Afghanistan on the brink, the administration feels it has all the turmoil it can handle. And as Vice President Dick Cheney made clear on his visit to Pakistan in late February, what the Bush administration cares about most from the country is action against the Taliban, not democratic progress. In pressuring Musharraf, Cheney even used the newly Democratic Congress as a foil, pointing to rumblings from lawmakers about attaching performance-based conditions to U.S. military aid.
Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with Pakistan, has been critical of the Bush administration's exclusive reliance on Musharraf. "The truth is, for our goals to be achieved in Pakistan there should be more than one phone number there to dial," he complained at last Wednesday's hearing on the political crisis.
Ackerman worries that if Musharraf is forced out, be it by politicking military generals or via genuine elections, the United States will be left friendless. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a visiting scholar at John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, has a different concern. With the United States being seen as supporting Musharraf's actions, "any anti-Musharraf agitation also takes on an anti-American shape," even among groups not especially opposed to U.S. policies in the past.
At this point, nobody can predict with confidence what will happen next. But clearly, Musharraf has been badly bruised, making it harder to deliver on his many promises to Washington. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, writing in last Thursday's Washington Post, pronounced him all but finished: "He is unable to rein in Talibanization in Pakistan or guide the country toward a more democratic future." Added Rashid: "Across the country â€¦ the feeling is growing that Musharraf will have to quit sooner rather than later."
That doesn't mean he'll go immediately, if at all. "Musharraf still does not feel very vulnerable," cautions veteran French diplomat Frederic Grare, currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "At the moment, the movement is limited to the lawyers and some activists of the political parties," adds Rizvi.
But that could change. "It's very likely that this is going to be seen in retrospect as the thing that forces him out," says Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At first, Hathaway notes, "Musharraf at least provided some stability" after the political chaos and corruption of the civilian governments of the 1990s, so urban elites tolerated him. Not so anymore. If the protests spread to broader segments of society, predicts Hathaway, Musharraf might not stand for reelection in the fall.
Another scenario is for Musharraf to step down as president, but retain his position as Army Chief of Staff. An acting president would step in and new elections would follow, according to procedures spelled out in the Pakistani constitution. That would be a welcome return to normalcy for the Army, which considers running the country an annoying diversion from its core mission of preparing for war with India.
What would happen in free and fair parliamentary elections? Would the Islamists take over a nuclear state, as Washington fears? No way, say the experts. It's a matter of demographics: together, the Punjabis and Sindhis that support the mainstream secular parties make up about 60 percent of the country, while the power base of the Islamists is limited to the tribal areas. Most likely, Musharraf's discredited Pakistan Muslim League (PML) would fare poorly, and the Pakistani People's Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- which won 28 percent of the electoral seats in 2002 -- would step in. Both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister from the PML who was thrown out by Musharraf in 1999, are eager to return from exile and compete.
That may or may not happen -- and both Bhutto and Sharif certainly have their blemishes -- but itâ€™s the process of free and fair elections that matters. There might be a period of political uncertainty, but behind the scenes, the Army would keep relations with the United States on an even keel. "I don't think either Benazir or Nawaz Sharif would change much, because â€¦ they would know that Western economic and military assistance is crucial for Pakistan's government,â€ says Rizvi. There might be some populist anti-American rhetoric, but "even if Musharraf goes, Pakistan's counterterrorism policy is not going to change. Maybe five to 10 percent." That's because, although Musharraf often portrays himself as Washington's indispensable ally, he's really just the point man for broader military-to-military ties between the two countries.
As for the creeping Islamization of the country, it's Musharraf's very weakness that has allowed this to happen, argues veteran correspondent Zahid Hussein in Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle With Militant Islam. Zigzagging between accommodation of the United States and the militants, Musharraf has created openings for the Islamists to exploit, while failing to undercut their strengths by making progress on education, political reform, and Kashmir.
So if the Bush administration wants to use Congress as the "bad cop" against Musharraf, Democrats shouldn't be afraid to play ball. More to the point, it would be short-sighted to focus on American security priorities to the exclusion of broader support for democracy. A weak leader with little democratic legitimacy isn't much help at all in the war on terrorism.
"Instead of thinking only in terms of the extremes of showering Pakistan, mainly its military, with aid or of cutting that aid off, U.S. policy makers should look at the totality of the picture in Pakistan," Boston University's Husain Haqqani told Ackerman's committee. He's right. In the long run, a strategy more in tune with both American interests and values is Pakistan's best hope -- and ours.
Blake Hounshell is web editor of ForeignPolicy.com.
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