Strong and sustained international pressure will be needed to defuse the present crisis. An unstable, volatile, radicalised, and nuclear-armed Pakistan is in no one’s interest.
Pakistan, it has been said, has always been triangulated by the three As: Allah, the Army and America. More recently, President Pervez Musharraf has found himself being squeezed by the jihadists, Islamists, and the judiciary. The dynamic between the above two sets of forces at play will determine the outcome of the current crisis. For outsiders as for Pakistanis, the choice is between worse — and the worst: the nightmare of a militantly Islamist, 160-million strong, nuclear armed failed state at the strategic cross-roads of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
Pakistan was an artificial creation carved out of British India with brute surgery using machetes rather than a scalpel. The result was hundreds of thousands butchered as ‘collateral damage’ in the great Partition. The only point of difference with India was religion. In 1971 Islam proved insufficiently strong to hold the country together. Musharraf was only 10 years into his army career then. That generation of the Pakistani elite neither accepted internal failures of governance as the primary cause of Bangladeshi secession nor forgave India for being midwife to Bangladesh’s independence.
Pakistan’s own independence was led by the professional elite rather than a mass political movement as in India. Its primary validating ideology was negative: the Muslims of the subcontinent, whose destiny is to be rulers not subjects, cannot be ruled by a Hindu-majority government. There was no political party with deep political roots in Pakistani society like the Congress in India. The country remained more feudal socially than India. And politics was controlled by the military and the civil service. Enmity with India gave the military the alibi to establish ascendancy over all civilian competitors and also to spread its tentacles into virtually every aspect of national affairs. Most Westerners would be startled to discover, for example, just how much the economy is run by the military.
The enmity with India also explains the third enduring force of Pakistani politics. The difference of scale between Pakistan and India is greater than between New Zealand and Australia or Canada and the United States. Unlike the other two pairs, Pakistan has always thought of itself as India’s equal in every respect. At the heart of this emotional parity lies the ability to match India militarily. This could not have been done without the alliance with the U.S. to begin with, and then sustained subsequently by a de facto alliance with China which also allowed Pakistan to take its own nuclear and missile programmes to fruition in 1998.
While the U.S. viewed Pakistan as an ally against international enemies, it was useful to Islamabad solely in an India-specific context. The two imperatives intersected during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Pakistan’s three As converged. Saudi financing and American arms and training built up the mujahideen as a potent force to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Over time this built up a battle-hardened jihadist army, including one Osama bin Laden, which exported terror from Afghanistan to make common cause with Islamist struggles all over the world. Yesterday’s anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan is today’s anti-Western jihadist everywhere.
To Pakistan, control over Afghanistan first through the mujahideen and then the Taliban gave it strategic depth against India but pitted it increasingly also against Iran. The Saudi connection led to a spurt of madrasas spewing hatred against Jew, Christian, and Hindu with equal venom. The army harnessed Islamism both against civilian political parties at home, to maintain control over Afghanistan, and, of course against India, especially in Kashmir. The result was that by the end of the last century the epicentre of terrorism had effectively shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Domestically, civilian governments alternated with the military but also competed with each other as to which could rob the national treasury the fastest and the most. In 1998, the subcontinent was overtly nuclearised, and in 1999 General Musharraf deposed and exiled Nawaz Sharif, the last legally elected leader.
The attacks of 9/11 occurred against this increasingly radicalised backdrop. A friend of mine, a former air force chief of a Western country, thought 9/11 would mark the end of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. “Shows how much I know the world of international politics,” he commented ruefully this year. For, not only did George W. Bush lash out at Iraq in a disastrous distraction from the real enemy Al-Qaeda and the real theatre of war in Afghanistan; he also negated his own eloquent analysis of the threats that had multiplied and intensified by coddling dictators and failing to champion democracy and freedoms in a triumph of short-term expediency over long-term strategic vision.
The result is everyone’s worst nightmare coming ever closer to reality in Pakistan. For eight years, General Musharraf has played the ‘I am your final line of defence against the jihadists taking over in this nuclear-armed country’ card to win grace, favour, money, and arms from the U.S. Both Benazir Bhutto, possibly the most popular politician in Pakistan today, and Mr. Sharif have warned of the perils of backing a duplicitous and unreliable General Musharraf. Washington, having invested so heavily in him (over $10 billion in aid since 2001), is seen as General Musharraf’s helper against the people: Pakistan has one of the staunchest anti-U.S. images in the world. He has survived many assassination attempts and was caught out in an outright lie on tape in an interview with The Washington Post. When he asked on CNN whether he was really so stupid as to have made the remarks about rape victims attributed to him, The Post promptly posted the audiotape on the Internet.
Washington never confronted the core of his duplicity. If he successfully eliminated the threat of Islamists, his utility to Washington and the fear of the alternative would disappear. If he failed to show any tangible progress, he would be toppled. So he has played both ends against the middle brilliantly.
But that meant that the policy contradictions ripened and threatened to burst. The Islamists survived, regrouped, built up their base and launched more frequent raids across the border in Afghanistan but also deep into the heart of Pakistan itself, culminating in the siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July. To appease an increasingly restive Washington, General Musharraf cracked down on the Islamists harder and entered into power-sharing talks with Ms Bhutto. Cornered by an increasingly assertive judiciary, he sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry but was forced to back down in the face of a revolt by the legal profession and international pressure. The general sentiment across Pakistan in recent weeks has been that General Musharraf was on his last legs, and this threatened to become a self-fulfilling analysis. To cap it all, the Supreme Court was about to rule on whether General Musharraf’s recent election as President was constitutional, and the portents were not favourable for him.
True to his commando instincts, General Musharraf has struck, declaring a state of emergency, suspending the Constitution, dismissing the Chief Justice and putting him under house arrest, and jailing a swathe of political opponents. The justification is saving the nation from its many enemies within and without. Even the most naïve and gullible are unlikely to swallow this. He is desperately trying to save his own skin politically and perhaps literally.
Such last-gasp efforts may delay the inevitable but are rarely successful. Almost all military regimes suffer from the pathology of being unable to plan for a peaceful transition to civilian rule. Pakistan has slowly but surely descended into the failed state syndrome over the last few years where the culture of the Koran and the Kalashnikov reigns supreme. It is hard to see how even Ms Bhutto can stick with General Musharraf and retain any credibility with her own party and support base. A strange alliance of liberals and radicals may emerge and prove as combustible as it did in toppling the Shah of Iran in 1979.
Strong and sustained international pressure and effort — stick followed by carrots — will be needed. An unstable, volatile, radicalised, and nuclear-armed Pakistan is in no one’s interest, with the consequences being worse for India and Afghanistan than anyone else. While civil society is neither deep nor extensive, the elite can hold its own against its counterparts from any other country. More and more Pakistanis have woken up to the reality of their potentially great nation having been taken hostage by uncivil society.
General Musharraf is not the solution but part of the problem, with a track record to prove it. He has to go. That must then be followed by building the institutions of good governance that are mutually reinforcing and resilient. This includes watchdogs that can catch violations of, and enforce, anti-corruption laws. Alleged incompatibility of Islam with democratic good governance is nonsense and given the lie in next door India (as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey). The army has to be reined in as in Turkey. The only sensible solution to Kashmir is to convert the Line of Control into the international border. Opposed by both sides, this would recognise a reality that has barely changed in the last 60 years and unlikely to change much in the next 60 years. It would drain the oxygen from the army’s political role and allow the infrastructure of terrorist training to be dismantled across Pakistan. The army belongs in the barracks. Putting it back there would be the start to ending Pakistan’s long nightmare.
(Ramesh Thakur is distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada.)