A US Alliance With One Man
Turmoil in Pakistan’s government may make a change in leadership inevitable
Paula R. Newberg; YaleGlobal, 31 July 2007
WASHINGTON: Trouble, we're told, comes in threes. But for Pakistan,this year has brought twice this number of problems - with more, no doubt, to come. Rising border instabilities with Afghanistan, renegade Islamic militancy in the heart of the capital, and a resurgent Taliban - the bread and butter of Pakistan's relationship with the US - have been overshadowed by the deepening problems of Pakistan's failing governance. General Pervez Musharraf's claimed prerogative has already provoked the judiciary to crisis. Rising civic opposition to the militarized executive branch exposed deep cracks in the army's edifice, and the mangled political system is ill- repared to accommodate the return of civilian politics.
Indeed, until the Supreme Court reversed his dismissal of the chief justice, Musharraf appeared to believe that constitutional confrontation would give him control over anticipated elections. But it is the sheer absence of control - even under conditions of army command - that pushed Musharraf to open negotiations with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for her return to Pakistan and made 2007 a critical year for Pakistan at home and abroad.
Phrased simply, Musharraf framed the vision of the state over which he now presides when he seized power in 1999. He has since created a political system that does not work and a political environment that fosters tremendous domestic confusion and unintentionally catalyzes the political opposition. In this, he has been aided and abetted, since 2001, by foreign allies who believe their own needs trump those of
As politics crumble in Pakistan, foreign support for Musharraf appears to brush aside Pakistan's needs. Those who consider withdrawing support for the general, however, may fear the forfeiture of their regional interests and perhaps the unraveling of Pakistan's internal security. Until Pakistan resolves the question of how to govern the country, everything else hangs by an ever-thinning thread. Driven by the exigencies of the immediate and by inertia favoring the known, the general's foreign backers, including the US, may drift toward political tragedy.
In some ways, Pakistan's current problems aren't new. Military governments have taught Pakistanis - and should have taught the world - the futile art of illegitimate army rule. Since the 1950s, promises of military discipline and praetorian strategy have never been fulfilled, even though foreign allies often encouraged this form of central rule. Musharraf, a self-described moderate modernizer, created a new kind of corrupted politics by appropriating the vocabulary of generals Ayub Khan, founder of Pakistan's handshake military-industrial complex, and Zia ul Haq, founder of recondite military-mullah relationships.
Today, the diffuse relationship between religion and the state has become dangerously unstable. Almost all civic institutions, and many of the country's largest businesses, are run by military men. As malign as the global anti-terror campaign may have been to Pakistan - where the war on terror is a serious war - Musharraf inflicted the primary injuries when he appropriated the offices of president and army chief.
Such tactics create vulnerabilities where they are most hazardous. Political manipulations led to the rise of Islamist parties in the Frontier - beyond the control of Afghanistan, the US and, ultimately, the army. Claiming to neutralize politics, Musharraf exiled party leaders Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif; found a pliable prime minister; mimicked a 1960s-era electoral system that effectively disabled political parties; and then patronized the rudderless Muslim League,
along with the Karachi-based and occasionally gun-happy Muttahida Qaumi Movement, to achieve a limp parliamentary majority.
Every action failed. Parliament is restive, party members clamor for the return of their leaders and younger generations - the majority of Pakistanis - may well turn their backs on old-school politics anyway.
For foreign interlocutors - the US, China, the European Union and Japan - such machinations may seem old hat: As long as Musharraf copied the familiar, the outcomes were not surprising. To the degree that policies based on fear and convenience underscored government actions, they, too, were familiar - fear that militant Islamists would rise if the army did not keep them at bay, fear that a return to party politics would compromise Pakistan's security.
But Musharraf's judgment backfired, and the creeping blandishments of impatient authoritarianism wreaked havoc. Four months after Musharraf fired the chief justice for giving a judicial forum to legitimate questions, the Supreme Court stood its ground, unveiling the lie beneath his vendetta and giving sustenance to Pakistan's civic opposition.
The next day, the government proved incapable of restraining the extremist Red Mosque in Islamabad, and bloodshed was the result. The Taliban and Al Qaeda quickly responded with retributive killings, and Washington has revived old talk of military action inside Pakistan. Musharraf's agenda and his remaining credibility imploded.
Sadly, Pakistanis are as likely to blame the US as they are to blame Musharraf for this sorry state of affairs, and they're not entirely wrong. When security forces finally acted against the Red Mosque, bystanders were certain that Musharraf had acted on US instructions - as they assumed he did when the army was called out in the Frontier. Since late 2001, the Bush administration has praised Musharraf for
Pakistan's role in fighting terrorism, conflating the general with his country and US policy with Pakistan's.
The problem the US now confronts is more dangerous than public diplomacy, however. Its security relationship with Pakistan is grounded in profound illegality. Pakistan's constitution, upheld by its highest court, forbids Musharraf from holding concurrently the offices of president and army chief. Despite promises to withdraw from one or the other - and should he wish to remain president, to run for re-election - he has not stepped down.
The Bush administration has indicated - in public, at least - that the
choice is Musharraf's. But the math is simple: Were the offices to be
separated, a new president could replace the army chief; a new army
chief could refuse to act on the orders of the old president; and both
would serve at the will of the parliament. Moreover, if Musharraf were
to run for president, he could lose. Constitutional manipulations
required to accommodate his need to remain in office and Bhutto's
ambition to return to power - allowing her to stand for a third term,
while waffling on his status as army chief and president - substitute a
short-term fix to a deeply seated governance problem.
In each instance, Pakistan's cooperation with the US and others would
no longer be a done deal. In this sense, the current US-Pakistan
alliance clearly acts against Pakistan's constitution, continues the
structural disruptions that military rule visits on the state and
ultimately undercuts the substance of alliance between the two
The US could fix its part of this existential problem, of course, by
stating outright that the rule of law is a greater long-term interest
than any one political or military actor, its alliance is with
Pakistan, not Musharraf. This won't dispel the likely contrivances of
ambitious politicians in both countries willing to deal with
opportunistic generals and politicians, and doesn't necessarily bring
about conditions that help Pakistanis return power to legitimate
At best, this is a first step toward a rational policy that recognizes
Pakistan's profound difficulties as it tries to correct the desperately
complex political and military environment wrought by US complicity
with the worst of military rule. But it is a critical step for both
countries. Without a change in posture, the US will be unprepared to
reap the benefits of inevitable changes in Pakistan. Then, no one's
interests will be served.