A false choice in Pakistan
by Daniel Markey
Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff from 2003 to 2007.
Summary: Americans are increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, but the United States should resist the urge to threaten President Pervez Musharraf or demand a quick democratic transition. Getting Islamabad to play a more effective role in the war on terrorism will require that Washington strike a careful balance: pushing for political reform but without jeopardizing the military’s core interests.
A DANGEROUS BACKLASH
Even before the dust had settled on 9/11, U.S. policymakers were well aware that Pakistan was at the center of the world’s worst Islamist terrorist networks. The Bush administration quickly moved to persuade once-sanctioned Islamabad to become an essential partner in the “global war on terror.”
But today, nearly six years after Secretary of State Colin Powell first announced that Washington and Islamabad stood “at the beginning of a strengthened relationship,” the Taliban are still entrenched in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, al Qaeda‘s top leaders have found a secure hideout in Pakistan, and terrorist attacks within and beyond Pakistan’s borders persist with deadly regularity.
Given these failures, it is no surprise that Americans are increasingly frustrated with the slow and uncertain progress in Pakistan. Many, including some members of the U.S. Congress and a number of serious Pakistan watchers, have begun to express fundamental doubts about the U.S. partnership with Islamabad.
They question whether President Pervez Musharraf — a general who took power after a coup in 1999 — and his military are trustworthy allies willing and able to stand on the frontlines in defense of U.S. security. They allege that recent deals between the Pakistani government and tribal elders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border with Afghanistan look suspiciously like capitulation to the Taliban, orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies with ties to known extremists. They charge, in short, that Musharraf and his allies in Islamabad have taken billions of dollars in U.S. aid while doing too little to advance — and, in many ways, much to undermine — the fight against terrorism.
These critics advocate a new approach to Pakistan.
They press for tougher talk from Washington — including threats of sanctions — in order to pressure Islamabad into undertaking more aggressive counterterrorism operations. And they argue that the United States should cut off Musharraf and push for a transition to civilian democratic rule. Musharraf’s military regime, they suggest, will never be a trustworthy partner capable of effectively fighting militancy and extremist ideologies.
It is true that Pakistan’s government needs greater popular legitimacy — won through the ballot box — in order to advance both long- and short-term counterterrorism goals. But the critics’ prescriptions for how to advance these goals risk throwing the United States, Pakistan, and the war on terrorism off course without offering a better alternative.
If members of the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) retain ties to militant groups, including Taliban sympathizers, they do so as a hedge against abandonment by Washington. The past six decades of on-again, off-again bilateral cooperation have undermined Pakistani confidence in long-term U.S. partnership. Washington, accordingly, should resist the appeal of the cathartic but counterproductive approach of confronting Islamabad with more sticks and fewer carrots. Any attempt to crack down on Pakistan will exacerbate distrust, resulting in increased Pakistani support for jihadists; coercive threats will undermine confidence without producing better results.
Nor is democracy a magic bullet. Pakistan’s security services will not easily be cowed, sidelined, or circumvented, and the challenges facing democracy in Pakistan go far beyond rigged elections or exiled politicians. Weak civilian institutions and a history of dysfunctional civil-military relations mean that bringing democracy to Pakistan is less a matter of resuscitation than of reinvention.
Still, success in Pakistan’s long-term struggle against extremism will eventually demand a thoroughgoing democratic transition in Islamabad, even if that transition is not realistic at the moment.
The Bush administration has failed to broaden its partnership with Pakistan much beyond army headquarters; it views the civilian dimension of Pakistani politics as a distraction rather than an integral part of the counterterrorism effort. Most Pakistanis believe that Washington is all too happy to work with a pliant army puppet.
Islamabad needs greater popular legitimacy in order to muster grass-roots support for the counterterrorism agenda. The United States should work to empower Pakistan’s moderate civilians even as it builds trust with Pakistan’s security forces. These goals are not contradictory: Washington can win the confidence of Pakistan’s military establishment without accepting its exclusive political authority, and it can help empower civilian leadership without jeopardizing the army’s core interests.
Pakistan’s upcoming national elections, likely to be conducted in the fall of 2007, open the way for a fresh political configuration in Islamabad. To capitalize on this opportunity, the Bush administration will need to carry off a tough balancing act. On the one hand, Washington must lend vocal support to Pakistan’s democratic process, resisting those who wrongly warn that elections will usher in a Hamas-style victory for extremists. Only blatantly rigged elections would be likely to boost the Islamists’ share of the vote above the historic highs achieved in 2002. Free and fair elections would favor mainstream parties, enabling a negotiated alliance between the army and a new, more progressive government.
On the other hand, Washington must resist the facile notion that Pakistan’s military is the main obstacle to counterterrorism efforts. Pakistan’s civilian leaders have nearly always had to negotiate a working relationship with the army in which generals retained significant decision-making power. Pakistan’s next leader, regardless of party affiliation, will almost certainly have to give in to this reality, too. And even if the army eventually retires from politics, it will remain an essential instrument in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.
BUSH AND THE GENERAL
By the fall of 2001, the influence of Islamist sympathizers in Pakistan’s army, intelligence services, and government had reached a dangerously high level. Pakistan’s support for jihadists in Kashmir and Afghanistan, the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan‘s nuclear black market, the steady growth of extremist mosques and madrasahs — all were distressing signs that the country risked slipping into state failure or Islamist rule.
After 9/11, Musharraf made a momentous decision to join the war on terrorism. But this did not mean an immediate U-turn on all support to militant groups in Pakistan.
As the White House correctly recognized, even if Musharraf was personally committed to this decision, he faced hard-line skeptics within his own army. The skeptics doubted the United States’ staying power, lamented the costs of turning against longtime jihadi associates, and questioned the wisdom of picking fights with global terrorist outfits. Accordingly, Musharraf needed to calibrate his actions in order to avoid alienating a powerful and all-important constituency. And he needed U.S. assistance to bolster his political allies and win over the remaining fence sitters.
In order to build trust with the Musharraf regime, the Bush administration launched a robust engagement strategy, with total assistance to Pakistan estimated at more than $10 billion since 9/11. (Counting covert assistance, the overall figure could be far higher.) The vast majority of this assistance has gone to Pakistan’s military. Washington has also worked through international financial institutions to ease Pakistan’s debt burden, opening the door for economic growth of just under six percent for the past four years.
And in June 2006, the Pentagon notified Congress of plans to sell up to 36 F-16 jets and associated high-tech weapons systems to Pakistan, a major reversal of U.S. policy dating from 1990, when such transactions fell victim to sanctions over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
On the diplomatic side, meanwhile, top members of President George W. Bush’s national security team have turned Pakistan into a regular destination, and the president himself made an unprecedented overnight stop in Islamabad last year. In 2005, the administration named Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally.”
Washington’s post-9/11 engagement with Islamabad has achieved notable successes. A number of al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured in Pakistan, including Abu Zubaydah (2002), Ramzi bin al-Shibh (2002), Khalid Sheik Mohammad (2003), Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan (2004), and Abu Faraj al-Libbi (2005).
Such achievements would not have been possible without extensive cooperation between Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies; they also netted extensive information on al Qaeda’s tactics and future plans. The strategy of engagement has also paid dividends on Pakistan’s eastern border with India. Following the almost nuclear “Twin Peaks” crisis of 2001-2, Washington’s friendly ties with India and Pakistan and steady support for Indo-Pakistani rapprochement have helped ease the way toward dialogue, a cease-fire, and confidence building between the two countries.
But such successes must be qualified by the fact that the Taliban are still present in southern Afghanistan and in Pakistani’s FATA and Baluchistan region and that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri apparently remain ensconced in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. Compounding these problems, Washington has focused too narrowly on Musharraf and his army as the United States’ sole partners in Pakistan.
So far, the administration has avoided the worst of nightmare scenarios in Pakistan — state collapse or an Islamist takeover — but failed to achieve its first-order goals in the war on terrorism or to bolster civilian governance.
Over the past year especially, a growing number of observers have begun to question whether Pakistan is “doing enough” on its side of the border to assist U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Afghans have long blamed Pakistan for providing sanctuary to Taliban fighters.
Now, NATO and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are saying the same thing. Indeed, by the start of 2007, prevailing U.S. opinion (at least outside of the administration) had settled on the idea that Islamabad needed to do more to crack down on militants. Congressional Democrats, frustrated with Pakistan’s seemingly weak commitment to the war on terrorism, have proposed that U.S. military assistance be conditioned on demonstrable progress not only on counterterrorism but also on democratic reforms. Some of these critics have charged that Musharraf’s army and intelligence services, given their long-standing ties to Islamist parties and jihadi groups, were never serious about fighting terrorism in the first place.
THE MULLAH-MILITARY CONDOMINIUM
It is true that Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan have long enjoyed close ties with the Pakistani military. As former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have, for decades, used religious parties for recruits.”
In the 1971 conflict between the central government and what was then East Pakistan, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan called on Islamist groups to help put down East Pakistan’s nationalists. And in the mid-1980s, the mullah-military condominium reached new heights under the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, as massive military assistance to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet mujahideen flowed from the United States and Saudi Arabia through Pakistan’s ISI.
Pakistan pursued a similar model in Kashmir, funding and training “freedom fighters” for operations against Indian targets. As a general in the field, Musharraf was an enthusiastic supporter of this working arrangement as a means to wrest Kashmir away from New Delhi, and there is little doubt that certain ISI-jihadi connections remained firmly intact after his 1999 coup.
For a while after 9/11, by most accounts, the crackdown by Musharraf’s government along the Afghan border differentiated between the Taliban (who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns) and foreign militants (Arabs and Central Asians). The Taliban often got a pass because some members of the military still viewed them as potentially valuable assets for projecting Pakistani influence into Afghanistan and because their long history of a close working relationship made it hard to cut ties overnight.
But over the past two years, particularly as the Pakistani army’s heavyhanded occupation of the FATA began to alienate local Pashtun tribes, shifting alliances between the government and domestic militants have made the battle lines more ambiguous. A series of assassinations of moderate tribal elders and signs of creeping “Talibanization” in the settled areas neighboring the FATA raised fears in Islamabad that the militant tide had risen too far.
In response, last spring Musharraf shifted to a new policy in the FATA, drawing on a counterinsurgency model by incorporating generous development assistance, political overtures, and a redeployment of the army away from population centers.
On the Afghan side of the border, intensified military operations in the spring and summer of 2006 convinced U.S. and NATO troops that a considerable number of militants had been able to find sanctuary in Pakistan, that prominent Afghan Taliban leaders were managing to plan operations from Pakistan, and that Pakistani border units lacked the will or the capacity to cut off cross-border infiltration. Under these conditions, it is unsurprising that Islamabad’s announcement of a new, comprehensive approach to the FATA was greeted with some skepticism in Washington.
In the weeks after the new approach was made official, U.S. and international security force officials reportedly claimed that cross-border attacks were up by 300 percent. Even if these reports were accurate, an initial spike in infiltration should not have been viewed as proof of Pakistan’s duplicity or of flaws in its long-term strategy. The infiltration spike was, at least in part, an opportunistic move by militants, capitalizing on the turmoil associated with the army’s redeployment out of population centers.
The supposedly enduring quality of the ties between Islamists and the Pakistani army leads Musharraf’s critics to two recommendations for U.S. policymakers. First, they argue that Washington should get over its squeamishness about pushing Musharraf and the army to do more in the war on terrorism. They portray Musharraf as a master of doing the least necessary in order to satisfy competing tactical requirements, prioritizing U.S. interests only when the costs of doing otherwise become unacceptably high, as was the case immediately after 9/11. Only an uncompromising stand from Washington, the thinking goes, will scare the Pakistani army straight; the Bush strategy of offering more carrots than sticks should be reversed.
Second, they argue that Washington must sponsor a democratic transition in Pakistan if it wants real progress in fighting terrorism. The Pakistani army has shown itself willing to partner with Islamists in order to dominate domestic politics and project regional influence, whereas Pakistan’s progressive parties, especially Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), are said to be self-interested and ideologically committed in their opposition to Islamist militancy. Only a popular mobilization of Pakistan’s moderates, the argument goes, can really address the social and developmental deficiencies that ultimately cause extremism.
MISDIAGNOSING THE MILITARY
As convincing as these prescriptions might sound, following them would in fact be counterproductive. Neither coercive threats nor unfettered democracy is likely to yield near-term or sustainable success in the war on terrorism. At the heart of the critics’ assessment of Pakistan lies an incorrect assumption about the nature of the army’s connection to Islamists.
The critics believe that that connection will be impossible, or at least exceedingly difficult, to sever. In fact, a break could come more easily than they think (although, given the long history, it may not happen as quickly or as smoothly as Washington would like). Pakistan’s security services maintain these connections less out of ideological sympathy and more out of strategic calculation: as a hedge against abandonment by other allies — especially the United States.
Fortunately, there are indications that the army would be amenable to a strategic shift. It currently faces very different circumstances than at any other stage in its alliance with the Islamists. During the Cold War, and even until 9/11, the United States tolerated, applauded, or overlooked Pakistan’s association with jihadi groups. In regard to Kashmir, Washington was as likely to criticize India for the heavyhandedness of its security forces as to condemn Pakistan’s training and financing of “freedom fighters.” In Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan were partners in supporting the mujahideen’s anti-Soviet struggle. And in the 1990s, nuclear proliferation concerns distracted Washington’s attention from the counterterrorism agenda.
But after 9/11, the diplomatic costs of Pakistan’s jihadi strategy started to mount. Overnight, terrorism became the White House’s top priority, and Islamabad’s semantic distinction between “freedom fighters” and terrorists no longer held water. Overt official ties with Afghanistan’s Taliban were the first casualty of the new “with us or against us” era. Soon afterward, the 2001-2 standoff with India forced Musharraf to drop full sponsorship of militants crossing Kashmir’s Line of Control. In both instances, Pakistan’s ties to Islamists were perceived as having brought on existential threats from outside powers.
The costs of the relationship have gone up in other ways, too. Because of his public commitment to counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, Musharraf is now a marked man, having narrowly survived several jihadi-sponsored attempts on his life. More broadly, the Pakistani army has suffered hundreds of casualties during operations in the FATA, creating new animosities between the security forces and extremists.
Some positive developments have also made the army more amenable to a strategic shift. Pakistan’s relations with India have improved since Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “hand of friendship” speech in the spring of 2003. The prospect of Indo-Pakistani normalization offers tangible economic and political incentives for putting an end to the militancy over Kashmir. On Pakistan’s other flank, if the United States and NATO demonstrate convincingly their commitment to building Afghanistan’s nascent democratic institutions, supporting President Hamid Karzai’s Pashtun-led government and remaining in the country for the foreseeable future, the Pakistani army will have an ever greater incentive to invest in Afghanistan’s stability rather than hedge against collapse or the rise of a threatening neighbor.
For all these reasons, a change in the strategic mindset of Pakistan’s military is now possible. Washington’s policy challenge lies in promoting and accelerating that change, weaning the army away from the Islamists, and cultivating an enduring partnership. Issuing threats — including to cut U.S. military assistance, end sales of major defense systems (such as F-16s), or curtail prestigious officer-training exchanges — is precisely the wrong approach. These threats weaken the United States’ friends and potential allies. They also arm skeptics in Pakistan’s military establishment who believe Washington will again abandon Pakistan once its tactical utility is gone.
The Pakistani officers most vital to the prosecution of counterterrorism operations are the most vulnerable to a regime of targeted sanctions; sanctions are also likely to fall on undeserving officers, frustrating some who might otherwise be committed partners. Targeted sanctions might make sense when the United States is seeking to remove or weaken a rogue regime, but they are not an effective way of inducing an uncertain partner to do more. Indeed, prior bouts of U.S. disengagement have only weakened Pakistan’s moderates and empowered the Islamists. Cuts in U.S. training programs for Pakistani officers during the 1990s, for example, created a generation of officers with no personal connections to their U.S. counterparts and, correspondingly, less trust in or sympathy for the United States.
Rather than acquiescing to tough talk from Washington, Pakistan’s leadership would likely place greater emphasis on and investment in hedging strategies designed to manage the costs of a possible U.S. abandonment. By forging even closer ties to Beijing, Riyadh, or others, Islamabad could buffer itself from most threats of external intervention and pursue economic development strategies without Washington’s assistance. By threatening to abandon Pakistan, Washington would also confirm the preexisting suspicions of many Pakistanis within and beyond the army: that U.S. interests in Pakistan are short term and cynical. Pakistan has lived without the United States in the past, and it might just be willing to walk that path again. And Washington’s coercive leverage is further limited by the fact that both Pakistanis and Americans know that Washington has a lot to lose by cutting off Islamabad.
POWER AND WEAKNESS
Trying to force a rapid democratic transition in Pakistan would prove similarly counterproductive. The problem with betting on democracy in Pakistan is not, as the popular myth has it, that Islamists would win. The specter of an Islamist takeover is often invoked to defend Musharraf’s resistance to democratic reform, but in fact, Musharraf’s undemocratic rule has obscured the lack of widespread support for Islamist parties. Only ISI manipulation of the 2002 elections permitted the Muttahida Majilis-e-Amal, or MMA — Pakistan’s major Islamist coalition — to win the votes it needed to become a significant factor in national politics. No Islamist group or political party currently possesses the organizational capacity or popular support necessary to seize power in Islamabad, and in legitimate elections the MMA would likely win only a small percentage of the vote (probably around five percent, the historical norm). A truly free and fair vote would more likely return power to the mainstream civilian parties — with power being held by some combination of Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.
The real problem with pushing for a rapid democratic transition is that genuine civilian democracy in Pakistan is an unrealistic aspiration in the near term. If the United States wants to work with Pakistan, one way or another it will have to work with the army — Pakistan’s strongest government institution and the only one that can possibly deal with immediate threats of violent militancy and terrorism. Almost all of Pakistan’s other institutions have either fallen victim to neglect (the primary-education system, for example, has yielded a literacy rate of 30-50 percent — and still, roughly 40 percent of the education budget goes unused because the bureaucracy is incapable of spending it) or been incorporated into the army’s expanding sphere of influence. Even if a civilian regime gained power in Islamabad, it would make critical decisions only after considering the army’s interests and depend on the army to get things done — and so, by extension, would Washington.
Pakistan’s postindependence history makes clear that even during periods of civilian rule, the army has usually called the shots. Throughout the 1990s, a period of nominal democracy, the army still held sway over critical national security and foreign policy portfolios, including the direction of Pakistan’s nuclear program and the management of relations with jihadi outfits in Afghanistan and Kashmir. By most accounts, Bhutto was, for example, largely in the dark about the development of Pakistan’s nuclear program until informed by U.S. officials. A decade of wrangling between civilian politicians and the army fueled instability and demonstrated that elections and constitutional provisions are inadequate guarantors of genuine civilian democracy in the face of a concerted military challenge.
The army has only become more deeply entangled in Pakistan’s politics and economy under Musharraf, making it even harder to circumvent or sideline. Nearly every public institution of any significance is run by a retired army officer, the army and its assorted foundations supplement their budgets through extensive business and real estate ventures, and the army maintains a vast network of schools, homes, and services for the benefit of soldiers and their families.
Dislodging the army from the driver’s seat in Islamabad would therefore require a civilian leader who was either extremely strong or sensitive to the army’s institutional interests. By either measure, Pakistan’s most prominent party leaders — Bhutto and Sharif — would be likely to fail. Both have been weakened by extended exiles and yet still generate a deep level of mistrust within the army. Neither can return to Islamabad without negotiating terms with Musharraf, and it is hard to imagine those terms would include stripping the army chief of his authority. Like it or not, Musharraf — or a successor general — will retain the lion’s share of power in the near term, even if national elections install a new government in Islamabad this fall.
WASHINGTON’S BALANCING ACT
The task for U.S. policymakers is twofold: firm up Pakistan’s counterterrorism commitment, particularly within the army and the ISI, and help bolster Islamabad’s ability to mobilize resources, people, and institutions in a broader fight against extremism and militancy. Washington can and should do more on both fronts — but it must avoid steps that jeopardize efforts to build trust with the Pakistani army.
U.S. policymakers can influence Pakistan’s intentions by following three basic rules that will help Washington demonstrate that it is offering Pakistan a genuine, long-term partnership and that the time for hedging bets with Islamists is over. First, do not issue public rebukes: they are counterproductive. Sanctions, real or threatened, only convince Pakistanis that the United States plans to abandon Pakistan the moment bin Laden is dead and Afghanistan is pacified. Further delaying F-16 jet sales would strike a particularly painful chord, reminding Pakistanis of Washington’s 1990 sanctions. Even privately issued threats of disengagement or highly targeted sanctions are detrimental. They undermine the chances that members of Pakistan’s security establishment will trust Washington over the long run and work harder on specific counterterrorism operations in the short run.
Second, the United States should demonstrate the tangible benefits of a bilateral partnership. Washington should fund a new multiyear assistance package that would pick up after President Bush’s five-year, $3 billion program expires in 2009. The “reimbursement” of the army’s counterterrorism expenses in the form of U.S. “coalition support funds,” which now runs over $1 billion per year, should also continue despite the weak monitoring mechanisms currently in place. The promise of sustained assistance empowers pro-U.S. army officers and weakens skeptics.
In addition to providing money and materiel, the United States should demonstrate its ability to address Pakistan’s regional interests. Washington’s influence in Kabul and New Delhi can help to ease Pakistani fears of strategic encirclement by a hostile India and its allies — a core Pakistani security concern. A long-term, robust U.S. commitment to promoting stability in Afghanistan is essential; it offers Pakistan the only way to extricate itself from Afghanistan without ceding the ground to regional adversaries, real or perceived. Washington also can and should continue to exert a moderating influence on stormy Afghan-Pakistani relations. Sustained three-way diplomacy at senior levels — such as the Bush-Musharraf-Karzai dinner of September 2006 — should be complemented by enhanced working-level political dialogues.
Nothing could transform Pakistan’s long-term potential for stability, wealth, and democratic rule more than normalization of its relations with India. Washington’s relationship with New Delhi is closer today than at any other time since India’s independence, and the prospects for Indo-Pakistani rapprochement are brighter than they have been in years. Removing barriers to the movement of goods and services across the Indo-Pakistani border could link Pakistan’s economy into India’s massive growth engine and enhance the potential for significant South Asian-Central Asian energy trade. It would also open educational and cultural opportunities to Pakistan’s growing population, of which 85 million are now estimated to be under the age of 19. To the extent that the Bush administration can quietly impress on India the benefits of progress in the Indo-Pakistani “composite dialogue,” it should do so. New Delhi is aware of the stakes, since India would suffer more than any other state from Pakistan’s instability. But Washington can sweeten the pot with political and economic incentives to promote compromise solutions — bearing in mind that no conceivable U.S. inducement will ever, on its own, generate a resolution over Kashmir.
Third, if and when greater coercion is deemed necessary, it should be applied through demands for more engagement. Rather than threatening to cut off assistance, the White House should insist on greater access — to Pakistani intelligence operatives, to army and other security forces, to information. Washington should put an end to any lingering doubts about its plans to stay actively involved in Pakistan and the region. Islamabad is deeply averse to having U.S. armed forces operate autonomously within Pakistan, so these demands should not be raised publicly, and an effort should be made to find less conspicuous ways to integrate Americans into Pakistani operations. Today’s communications, reconnaissance, and long-range strike technologies can bring U.S. forces into a fight without ever placing boots on the ground. Beyond possible tactical benefits, greater U.S. involvement would send the signal that Washington plans to invest in long-standing, working-level ties and that its ultimate goal is deeper, closer cooperation.
On the military side, Washington can do much more to improve the effectiveness of Pakistan’s security and intelligence services. Additional training, resources, and equipment are still needed to transform elements of the Pakistani army from a heavy counter-Indian force into a more agile counterterrorism, counterinsurgency force. Improving Pakistan’s civilian institutional capacity is at least as urgent — and yet far more difficult. The strength of Pakistan’s infrastructure and public health, education, law enforcement, and justice sectors will determine its ability to sustain the fight against extremism over the long term. A weak Pakistani state and a faltering economy prop the door open to discontent, alienation, and radicalization.
Unfortunately, the United States is poorly equipped when it comes to cultivating public opinion or building institutions of civilian governance, especially in countries, such as Pakistan, where U.S. officials and contractors face paralyzing security threats. U.S. assistance dollars spent on public-administration training programs, exchanges, and technical assistance are not wasted, but the scale and scope of Pakistan’s challenge require far greater resources. Only millions of Pakistani citizens acting locally and nationally can possibly create and strengthen the institutions responsible for delivering basic services and security.
ARMING PAKISTAN’S DEMOCRACY
Musharraf’s military-backed government has failed to build a genuine party organization capable of mobilizing grass-roots activism. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League is cobbled together mainly from opportunists and technocrats, and few observers believe it would win a ruling majority in free and fair elections. Despite its steadily eroding base, Bhutto’s PPP remains the only nationwide mainstream party with the potential to energize popular support in the fight against extremism.
In anticipation of national elections this fall, rumors have emerged that a Musharraf-Bhutto deal is in the making. The integration of a wider swath of progressives into Islamabad’s ruling coalition would represent a significant step forward, even if the army — and Musharraf himself — were to retain a dominant influence over defense and foreign policy. Realistically speaking, forming a PPP-Musharraf coalition might be the best possible way to expand the capacity of antiextremist civilian forces in Pakistan and begin a gradual transition to democratic rule. In time, and under the right conditions, the army might be able to be more fully extricated from domestic politics.
For these reasons — and contrary to the claims of the most zealous advocates of democracy promotion — the United States would not benefit from taking a hard line against Musharraf’s continuance in office as president or army chief this year. Washington’s choice is not between Musharraf and democracy, nor is it between Musharraf and radical militants. Rather, the choice is between an army chief (Musharraf or a successor) in a coalition with progressives and moderates and an army chief in league with other less appealing partners.
Washington’s rhetoric and quiet cajoling will not ultimately determine political outcomes, but they can send signals and create opportunities that might not otherwise exist. In addition to providing their good offices for efforts at constructive political mediation, top U.S. officials should stand behind three basic principles when discussing Pakistan. First, they must continue to repeat the mantra of “free and fair” Pakistani elections. Washington should continue to provide technical assistance to Pakistan’s Election Commission, warn specifically against the “pre-cooking” of elections by the ISI or other government agencies, and join other international partners in arranging extensive election monitoring by outside observers. Without external pressure, hard-liners around Musharraf will be sorely tempted to rig the elections, as they did in 2002 and 2005, particularly if his party’s prospects look bleak. U.S. attention would make it more likely that Musharraf will go for, and abide by, a deal with the PPP in order to form a unity government with a moderate electoral base. But Washington should not press for Musharraf’s ouster, since this year’s elections are only the first step along the way to disengaging the military from domestic politics. In the near term, Musharraf would simply be replaced by another army chief, perhaps one less well disposed to an agenda of, in his words, “enlightened moderation” or working with moderate political parties.
Second, Washington should take a principled stand on the protection of human rights and the constitutional rule of law. Aside from their intrinsic importance, these issues tend to unite progressive political forces within Pakistan, setting the stage for coalition building. And Washington’s words, or lack thereof, are noticed in Islamabad. By speaking firmly on human rights issues — voicing either encouragement or concern, as necessary — Washington can lend its indirect support to a new political alliance that would be well positioned to wage the long-term fight against extremism in Pakistan. Unfortunately, Washington’s silence immediately after Musharraf suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry this spring did just the opposite: it contributed to a breakdown in unity among progressives and strengthened the hand of hard-liners bent on extracting maximum political advantage. The subsequent street protests have demonstrated how such issues can produce serious unintended political outcomes.
Third, U.S. officials should begin to stress publicly the need for “internal party democracy.” One of the traditional weaknesses of Pakistan’s political parties is their close association with single individuals or families. Democratic mechanisms within the parties would help turn them into institutions that outlast specific leaders and represent broader interests and ideals. The process of selecting new standard-bearers also energizes party members and expands the base. Deservedly or not, Bhutto and Sharif have become polarizing figures in Pakistani politics. By stressing internal party democracy, Washington could make a principled case for a changing of the guard in Pakistan’s mainstream parties and lend its support to the forging of a coalition government with fresh faces at the helm.
SHIFTING GEARS, NOT REVERSING COURSE
Washington should shift gears in its approach to Pakistan, but it should not reverse course. Given the abysmal state of U.S.-Pakistani relations on the eve of 9/11, the Bush administration’s six-year partnership with Musharraf has paid real dividends. Pakistan’s macroeconomic outlook and its relationship with India have both improved, creating new prospects for long-term stability and prosperity.
With the Bush administration facing challenges to its “freedom agenda” throughout the Muslim world, the White House may be reluctant to place another wager on democratic elections in a country of such strategic significance. But Pakistan is no Egypt or Palestine. A majority coalition built with mainstream moderates and the army’s support is now possible. Pakistan’s Islamists pose a very real threat, but not yet at the ballot box. Delaying democratic practice weakens the Pakistani government’s capacity to fight extremism in the short run and sows the seeds of more extremism in the long run.
At the same time, Washington must win the trust and confidence of Pakistan’s army. This goal can only be achieved through closer working relationships and tangible investments that lock the United States into a long-term commitment to the region.
Fortunately, the choice between supporting Pakistan’s army and promoting democracy has always been a false one. Both are necessary. Only by helping to empower civilians and earning the trust of the army at the same time will the United States successfully prosecute the long war against extremism and militancy.
Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.