“A very frank discussion” — so President Bush described his November 7 telephone conversation with Pervez Musharraf, four days after the Pakistani general imposed a state of emergency and dissolved the high court expected to rule his continued presidency unconstitutional. And frank the discussion probably was: In the face of spirited protest in Pakistan, and a querulous press in Washington, back-channel pressure succeeded in persuading Musharraf to promise parliamentary elections. Yet the generous US aid earmarked for Pakistan — on top of nearly $10 billion since 2001 — is quite evidently not at risk.
What may be at risk is Musharraf’s tenure as head of the military government. According to the New York Times, US policymakers are building up Musharraf’s deputy, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, as the preferred replacement for the increasingly unpopular president. Clearly, Washington wants to retain at the center of Pakistani politics a powerful military figure who will help wage the US-led “war on terror” in the region.
It’s an old story. Pro-democracy rhetoric notwithstanding, US presidents have backed military regimes in Pakistan in the service of larger strategic goals. In the 1960s, Gen. Muhammad Ayub Khan’s junta was at the forefront of US-sponsored anti-Communist efforts in South and Southeast Asia, playing host to a high-tech surveillance post spying on the Soviet Union. In 1979, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the United States bailed out Gen. Muhammad Zia ul Haq, whose regime began training the radical Islamist “freedom fighters” from whose ranks al Qaeda later emerged. In 2001, the United States started counting on Musharraf and his generals to help wage the war on terror, giving a regime that was under sanctions (because of Pakistan’s nuclear tests) a new lease on life.
Each of these short-term security fixes has come at the expense of long-term stability in Pakistan itself.
The military has left the country in political and social disarray whenever it has ruled for an extended period. In 1971, the army junta, rejecting the results of the 1970 elections, embroiled Pakistan in a brutal civil war leading to the division of the country.
Among the results of Zia’s support for the anti-Soviet insurgency: the proliferation of small arms and drugs; the radicalization of Islamic schools to produce fighters for the “holy war” in Afghanistan (and then Kashmir); a drain on resources because of the influx of Afghan refugees; and increased ethnic and sectarian violence. Pakistan is still struggling to cope with the consequences.
We already have more than a hint of where today’s military rule may take Pakistan. The army has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fighting an ongoing insurgency in Baluchistan. Poverty and unemployment are up, and the state is unable to check rampant criminal activity in the cities.
Pakistan is again at a crossroads. The military, it is evident, will not risk civilian scrutiny until it can entrench its power in Pakistani society. Secular-minded, pro-democracy lawyers, political activists and the increasingly independent media are bearing the brunt of the military crackdown. Should this dangerous trend persist, the democratic forces in the country could be silenced, leaving only two actors in the political arena, the military and its allies, on one side, and Islamist radicals, on the other.
The United States, as Pakistan’s main ally, should show greater respect and empathy for Pakistanis’ aspirations for a more open and just society. It should exert pressure on Musharraf to lift the state of emergency and restore civic and political rights. In particular, US aid to Pakistan should be used as a lever, made conditional upon adherence to democratic practices and not a mere reshuffling of elites. Only a prosperous, democratic and educated Pakistan can be a bulwark against violence and extremism in the long term.
A frank Pakistani would tell President Bush that Pakistan deserves more from the United States than backing for the generals who, for all their talk of moderation, are pushing their country toward extremism and keeping it on course for still more disasters.