How Can the U.S. play a role in stabilizing Pakistan?
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
San Francisco Chronicle, January 3, 2008
Pakistan's political crisis, triggered by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the ensuing violence sweeping the country, is a worrisome development in South Asia and beyond. Without a doubt, Pakistan's political decay will affect its neighbors, including Afghanistan, just as Pakistan itself for decades has been impacted by conflict spilling over from beyond its (contested) borders.
Indeed, a good deal of Pakistan's turmoil can be traced to the regional sources of instability that have acted as the breeding ground for the military government that has shaped Pakistan since the country's independence in 1947.
From the Indo-Pakistan conflict, which has led to a nuclear arms race, to the internationalized conflict in Afghanistan, to the armed uprising in the disputed territory of Kashmir, Pakistan is today ensconced in a fragile political environment that will likely remain that way for a generation. This unstable political situation will be compounded by numerous internal conflicts, such as ethnic separatism in Baluchistan and Sindh provinces and the recent uprising in the Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, each of them requiring a distinct political solution.
With Bhutto's assassination, it will be more difficult for Pakistan to transition to a democratic government. More modest domestic political gains from its elections, now postponed until February, should be expected. Certainly, Pakistan's future hinges on whether control of the country will remain with the army or transition back to a civilian government.
Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf is here to stay and the United States now needs to rethink its policy toward Pakistan. A clue to his staying power is his pragmatic and delicate handling of foreign policy, particularly with respect to the strategic development of the U.S.-India nuclear pact, widely interpreted in Pakistan as the United States' intention to insure that Pakistan's arch-enemy, India, is the leading power in South Asia.
Under Musharraf, Pakistan has steered an independent foreign policy while maintaining an alliance with the United States, by strengthening ties with Russia, China, Iran and other regional players weary of the "American agenda." Case in point: The United States has not welcomed any warming of tied between Iran and Pakistan, and Musharraf has defied the United States' call to shelve the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, a proposed $7 billion pipeline to deliver natural gas from Iran to India and Pakistan.
Bhutto went out of her way to show herself aligned with Bush's war on terrorism. Bhutto never criticized U.S. policy that seemed to elevate India in the region, thus many in the Pakistani military elite saw her in a negative light.
So now, how does the United States harmonize regional security imperatives with democratic politics in Pakistan? Should these imperatives be recast in favor of a new Pakistan policy that takes into consideration Pakistan's national security worries, which only partially coincide with those of the United States and thus limit full democratization of Pakistan?
Hectoring Pakistan's civil-military elite about democracy has clearly backfired. Bhutto's assassination has tipped the scales in favor of the ruling politico-military elite focused on national (security) interests. The latter's overriding concern now is to have some breathing space domestically.
It would be a major U.S. foreign policy blunder to indulge Musharraf in bashing Bhutto's internal detractors. The United States needs to seriously consider recasting its India policy in favor of a more balanced approach, while steering clear of Pakistan's domestic politics. Otherwise, the United States risks further alienation of Pakistan's political elite.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a professor of international relations at Bentley College.