Stop thinking of Pakistan as a client state
Editorial, The Observer, Sunday August 24 2008
The good news from Pakistan is that last week Pervez Musharraf, the general who seized power in a military coup in 1999, resigned. Better still, it was civilian political pressure and not an assassin's bullet that terminated his presidency. That, for a country sometimes described as the most dangerous on Earth, looks encouragingly democratic.
The bad news is that Mr Musharraf's departure does not make Pakistan much less dangerous. Hostility to the unpopular President was perhaps the only unifying force in a fractious coalition government. With Mr Musharraf gone, the stage is clear for a ruthless power struggle between the Pakistan People's party, vehicle for the family ambitions of the late Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif.
Since Pakistan is a nuclear power and host, along its lawless border with Afghanistan, to Taliban and al-Qaeda bases, the country's political turmoil is an obvious source of anxiety in the West. Mr Musharraf's rule was undemocratic, but, viewed from Washington, it offered strategic clarity. The general was an ally in the 'War on Terror'. The promise to purge his country of jihadi militants earned Mr Musharraf billions of dollars in aid.
But Mr Musharraf failed, not least because he looked like a White House client. Pakistan is not in any sense a 'Western' country. It is a militarily powerful but economically under-developed state, born of anti-colonial struggle and home to the world's second largest Muslim population. Mr Musharraf's apparent subordination of the national interest to serve American policy was always going to provoke a backlash that was part nationalist, part Islamic in character. That backlash made Mr Musharraf's regime more reliant on Washington and more repressive. Not surprisingly, many Pakistanis do not now associate domestic political freedom with US foreign policy.
That does not mean that Pakistan is a hot- bed of Taliban-style radicalism. Extremist parties struggle to get even 10 per cent of the national vote. Even without Mr Musharraf, Islamabad hardly needs persuading that jihadi terrorism is a threat. More Pakistanis were murdered by Islamic militants last year than were killed in the 9/11 attacks on the US.
But Pakistan struggles to reconcile civilian political determination to keep extremists at bay with military strategic preoccupations that predate the US 'War on Terror'. In particular, the country's military and intelligence establishment has historically seen collaboration with the Taliban as a weapon against India. Those forces are increasingly alarmed by a nascent alliance between Delhi and Nato-sustained Afghanistan. Pakistan felt safer from its oldest enemy when Afghanistan was a primitive buffer zone, controlled by Muslim fanatics. India blames Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency for a recent bomb attack on its Kabul embassy.
Meanwhile, the ability of Taliban fighters to seek refuge in Pakistan is a source of constant frustration for Nato commanders in Afghanistan. But even if Pakistan were capable of expelling the Taliban and al-Qaeda from its ungovernable tribal regions (which it currently is not), it would need some incentive greater than kudos and cash from Western capitals before it tried.
When Mr Musharraf was in power, Western leaders avoided engaging with the nuances of Pakistan's strategic perspective. His departure makes that task essential. The West, which essentially means Washington, must spend much more diplomatic energy smoothing relations between Islamabad and Delhi. The case must be made to both of South Asia's nuclear-armed Cold Warriors that detente would deliver substantial security and economic benefits across the region.
That, of course, is a long-term goal; the West has little control over events in Pakistan in the short term. Recognising that limitation would also be a smart move. Mr Musharraf's image as 'pro-Western' helped turn Pakistanis anti-Musharraf. A sensible new diplomatic strategy would focus not on fashioning Pakistan into a Western client, but on promoting a stable and democratic Pakistan which would ultimately be more likely to see its own interests and those of the West coinciding.