Pakistani Dilemma: A Perspective

Harvard Political Review, Spring 2006
Pakistani Dilemma:America’s uneasy ally searches for a way forward

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is in trouble. Since seizing power in a military coup in October 1999, Musharraf has been trying to lead the country toward stability and modernization. Beleaguered by problems ranging from a sluggish economy to Islamist extremism to tense relations with India, many Pakistanis initially looked at Musharraf’s administration as a positive force for change. And after September 11, Musharraf became an important ally to the United States in the War on Terror. But today his authority is growing more precarious and his future is in doubt. Ensuring a lasting alliance with Pakistan will require the United States to disentangle itself from the embattled leader and build an institutionalized bilateral relationship that can survive a power turnover.

Ambivalent Ally

For the United States , the greatest geo-strategic benefit of an alliance with Pakistan lies in its ability to play a progressive role in a turbulent region. Hassan Abbas, a former official in the last two presidential administrations, explained to the HPR that Pakistan "has a strong army, a history of democracy, and it has potential… we need more Islamic countries on the side of progressivism instead of dogmatism… with the proper nurturing, Pakistan can be a very positive country for the U.S. as an ally 20 to 25 years down the line.” But recent developments make it clear that such a future will not be realized under Musharraf’s leadership.

Since taking power, America’s partnership with Musharraf centered on his willingness to respond to U.S. demands to crack down on terrorist organizations within Pakistani borders. It seems, however, that Musharraf has not upheld his end of the bargain, largely because he has a political interest in the continued existence of radical Muslim groups. Vali Nasr, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the HPR that Musharraf “has been tough… on Arab extremists, but he has been soft on domestic extremists… [The Taliban] was a way to influence and control Afghanistan; extremists were a way to put Kashmir on the boiler… These groups are like weapons systems for Pakistan, they won’t give them up that easily.”

In fact, Islamic radicals offer crucial support in Musharraf’s continued campaign to marginalize the liberal parties, who pose the biggest threat to his power and legitimacy. Abbas explained that if there were a transparent election today, Musharraf would lose to exiled progressive leaders such as former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistani people, it seems, are suffering from authoritarian fatigue after seven years of military rule.

Troubled Times Ahead

Beset by difficulties, Musharraf faces many challenges without clear-cut solutions. Tensions in Baluchistan, the poorest of Pakistan’s four provinces, have erupted into violence over the tribal people’s claims to a greater portion of the profits from their natural gas and mineral wealth. Joint Chinese-Pakistani cooperation on a new port in Gwadar has further incited rebellion, as Baluch radicals demand a share in the profits. These developments are troubling to America: stability in Baluchistan is paramount for the War on Terror; it lies on the border with Afghanistan and is a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. Cooperation with China might mean an increased Chinese presence in Pakistan’s affairs.

A disgruntled America is in turn deeply troubling for Musharraf, as American support has long played a crucial role in sustaining his regime. Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institute told the HPR that the government in Islamabad is receiving huge amounts of aid for cooperation in the War on Terror. But there are indications that even Washington is losing faith in Musharraf’s capability. Christine Fair, a specialist on South Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told the HPR that the manner in which the military conducted recent American air strikes in northern Pakistan signals a changing attitude. Whereas before Musharraf would have received political cover for what would obviously be a domestically contentious issue, such assistance was not forthcoming from Washington.

For the near future, his support from Pakistan’s armed forces ensures Musharraf’s continued rule. To overthrow the dictatorship would take “either serious dissent within the military – and Musharraf has purged the military repeatedly to make sure that that doesn’t happen – or you need a serious uprising to challenge the military in the street,” according to Nasr. Despite some vociferous dissent, such revolutionary circumstances are not yet at hand in Pakistan.

Despite their misgivings, Washington must be careful not to undermine Musharraf without a better plan for stability. Anti-Americanism is high in Pakistan, especially among the most powerful opposition groups in Parliament. After Musharraf – a leader with a looming expiration date – Fair believes that for the alliance to continue, American and Pakistani interests must be realigned. She calls for “a complete and total overlap of interests… vis a vis security in South Asia, Afghanistan, [and] security in Pakistan.” If this is unachievable in the foreseeable future, both the United States and Musharraf will have to hold on and hope for the best.


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