Après Bhutto: The National Interest

Après Bhutto
by Anatol Lieven; The National Interest; 12.28.2007

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination leaves U.S. policy towards Pakistan in tatters—but then, it was a pretty tattered policy to begin with. Too much of the U.S. approach—by the Democrats, the media and the think-tank community, to an even greater degree than the administration—has been based on three interlocking illusions: that Pakistan can be turned into a fully co-operative and obedient ally in the “war on terror” and the war in Afghanistan, when the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis oppose this and see it as contrary to Pakistan’s own interests; that the return of “democracy” in Pakistan, embodied in Ms Bhutto, would help to make Pakistan such an ally; that Pakistani society at present is capable of generating and supporting democracy in the Western sense; and that in overall U.S. strategy, it makes sense to subordinate Pakistan to the needs of the war in Afghanistan, rather than the other way round.

The latter confusion is made worse by the fact that no-one is quite sure any longer what U.S. strategy in Afghanistan actually is. Does the U.S. wish to continue a tough military struggle against the whole Taliban? Or does the administration intend, as the British and others urge, to imitate recent U.S. policy in the Sunni areas of Iraq and try to create a new alliance with local Taliban commanders, if necessary at the expense of the Karzai administration? If the former, then the U.S. and Pakistan are on an obvious collision course. If the latter, then the U.S. may come to pursue an approach close to the one that the Pakistani government has been following in its own tribal areas along the Afghan border—though so far, it must be said, with only very limited success.

Given all this confusion, and the extremely unsettled situation in Pakistan itself, U.S. policy for the moment should be to do precisely nothing. Washington should wait and see how things develop on the ground: how bad violence and unrest becomes, and whether any new leader can emerge in the PPP even partially to replace Ms Bhutto. There is certainly no point at all in present circumstances for the U.S. to continue to demand that elections take place next month. Indeed, such elections could only make things very much worse, and would certainly be accompanied by massive violence, above all between the Sindhi supporters of the PPP and the Mohajir supporters of the government in Karachi.

Benazir Bhutto’s murder is a tragedy, and one with very dangerous implications for Pakistan’s future stability and unity; but it may at least help clear up some of these conclusions in the U.S. public mind. On the basis of this clarity, it may then be possible to craft a U.S. strategy towards Pakistan which will correspond to reality and truly serve U.S. vital interests.

This is not because Ms Bhutto’s death represents “The Death of Democracy”, as that beacon of deep policy analysis, the British Sun tabloid, headlined it. Ms Bhutto had many virtues, including great physical courage and immense determination; but she was no more a modern democratic with a coherent reformist agenda than her equivalents in the Philippines or Bangladesh.

She was a populist aristocrat, with all that means in terms of grace under pressure, presence of style and absence of substance; and her party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has long been a dynastic party, not a modern mass party with a common and credible program. For that reason it is unlikely to survive the death of the last adult and politically credible representative of the Bhutto dynasty.

In the long run, the decay of the PPP will benefit both the Pakistani army and the Islamists: The army, because it will be able to bring bits of the PPP into government through offers of jobs and patronage—something that Musharraf has already done quite successfully in recent years. This will greatly help the military to put together coalition governments which the army will control from behind the scenes.

The Islamists will stand to benefit because if the PPP decays or disappears altogether, only the Islamists will remain as a political force promising reform of Pakistan’s deeply corrupt, unjust and incompetent governing system. The PPP’s promise to do this may have become more and more obviously hollow over the years, especially during Ms Bhutto’s two corrupt and unsuccessful terms as prime minister—and this was reflected in the PPP’s decline in the public opinion polls.

All the same, the poor of Pakistan had not completely forgotten her father’s vow to bring them “clothing, food and shelter”. No other politician in Pakistan can possibly offer this with a straight face—least of all Nawaz Sharif, with his roots and support among the industrialists of Punjab. So anyone who really wants radical change (as opposed to incremental change stemming from economic growth) will now have nowhere to go but the Islamists.

But that is for the future. In the next few weeks and months the twin questions are of how bad violence and unrest will become in Pakistan, and whether any kind of transition to elected civilian government can take place while Musharraf remains President. Neither answer will be clear for some time. Things have not begun well with Nawaz Sharif’s continued boycott of next month’s planned elections, and the irresponsible talk of many politicians about the army having been responsible for Ms Bhutto’s assassination—something for which there is no evidence whatsoever, while all the prima facie evidence points to an Islamist suicide attack—of the kind which last week targeted Musharraf’s Interior Minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao.

On the other hand, at least so far none of the PPP leaders have called for mass attacks on the military and the state. Such attacks by PPP supporters that have taken place seem to have done so spontaneously. That is one important reason by the way why next month’s elections should be postponed: The last thing Karachi needs at the moment is an impassioned election campaign in which a variety of aspiring leaders may be tempted to outbid each other in appealing to ethnic sentiment.

For the moment, though, it may not be too cynical to suggest—and cynicism in analyzing Pakistani politics is rarely misplaced—that none of the possible successors to Ms Bhutto as PPP leader want to burn their bridges to the military, and thereby destroy the possibility that they will replace Ms Bhutto as Washington’s candidate for Prime Minister in an alliance with Musharraf or a military successor.

For if mass violence does spread, then sooner or later the senior generals will form a delegation and politely and respectfully ask Musharraf to step down as president, just as they did with General Ayub Khan forty years ago. The military will then conduct a “transition to democracy”, and will almost certainly have already decided in private to whom the government should in fact be transferred. With Musharraf and his hostility to Nawaz Sharif out of the way, that could well be Sharif, but it could equally be some PPP leader.

Whatever happens, however, the army will remain the most important force in the Pakistani state, and a key factor in every future Pakistani administration. And as long as the army sticks together, it will fight successfully to prevent both Islamist revolution and ethnic secession. Only if the army splits will Pakistan be in danger of disintegration, as opposed to violent unrest.

As far as Washington is concerned, the best course of action for the moment is once again to do nothing, since nothing the U.S. can do in the short term will do any good. In the longer term, the U.S. needs to develop a strategy based on an understanding of the limitations on any Pakistani government’s support for the U.S. in Afghanistan, given the feelings of the Pakistani population and much of the army. Ms Bhutto’s rule would not have provided a magic key to solve this dilemma, and nor will any future “return to democracy”.

Trying to force a Pakistani government too far down this road will only increase the chances of Islamist unrest spreading to the Pakistani military. As for the option of intervening directly in Pakistan, as raised by Barack Obama and the more irresponsible parts of the U.S. media, any such idea must be rejected out of hand. It is the one scenario which might actually produce Islamist revolt in the military and the collapse of the Pakistani state. Furthermore, any such U.S. military intervention in Pakistan would vastly increase the threat of terrorism from the Pakistani diaspora in the West, and make continued British help to the U.S. in the war on terror infinitely more difficult.

Finally, Washington needs to think through the full implications of a new strategy in Afghanistan based on appealing to parts of the Taliban, and if necessary dropping President Karzai in favor of some form of government of national unity including such Taliban elements. If this course is to be pursued determinedly and consistently, then Pakistan should be regarded not as an enemy of the U.S., but as a very useful intermediary between the U.S. and the Taliban. The one thing which should not be done is to adopt this new strategy while continuing to treat Pakistan as a scapegoat for the West’s failings in Afghanistan. Even bringing Afghanistan to the level of progress that Iraq has achieved in recent months will be hellishly difficult, and for this to happen Washington will need all the regional help it can possibly get.

Anatol Lieven is a senior editor at The National Interest, Chair of International Relations and Terrorism Studies at King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. His latest book, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World, co-authored with John Hulsman, was recently published in paperback by Vintage Books.

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