By Clay Varney
Pakistan’s tenuous political situation took another strange twist on September 10as a former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, attempted to return home in order to run in the upcoming presidential election this fall after seven years of exile in Saudi Arabia. Sharif, Pakistan’s ruler in the early 1990’s and again from 1997 to his overthrow in a coup by Pakistan’s current leader General Pervez Musharraf, flew into the Islamabad airport, where he was quickly met by security forces and given the option of arrest and imprisonment or continued exile, despite previous approval of his return by the nation’s Supreme Court. Choosing the latter option, Sharif was flown out of the country while a crackdown was launched on the leaders of his All Parties Democratic Movement. In taking this step, the military government of Musharraf risked another round of domestic turmoil against the regime. This event would be significant by itself, but taken in combination with other recent occurrences within Pakistan, it does not bode well for the future of the Musharraf government, let alone the prior state of popular acquiescence the general’s rule had once maintained.
Amid increased unrest among disparate elements of Pakistani society ranging from militant jihadists to secular lawyers against Musharraf’s continued hold on power, August saw the near declaration of a state of emergency. This move, which would have increased the government’s authority for a crackdown against dissident elements, was rumored to have been squashed via a telephone intercession from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. More recently, a purported power-sharing deal between Musharraf and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, turned sour after it appeared an arrangement was about to be struck. This agreement, which received backing from the Bush administration, would have given Musharraf some leeway against critics of the regime. On the same day as Sharif’s unsuccessful attempt at a homecoming, a spokesman for Bhutto alluded to her own return to Pakistan in October to contest the upcoming national elections. Whether Bhutto’s return will receive a similar welcome wagon remains to be seen.
Though initially these occurrences may appear to be unimportant developments in a far off land, the outcome of this struggle for power in Pakistan will have direct implications on the national security of the United States. Musharraf has played a delicate game in his alliance with the US against Al Qaeda. After the intensity of American resolve became apparent after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Musharraf and his regime began cooperating with the United States in its prosecution of the war on terrorism. Since that time, prominent figures in the Al Qaeda hierarchy, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have been captured or killed in Pakistan with Pakistani assistance. However, the strength of this cooperation has come into question recently in light of the peace treaty signed between the government and tribal forces in North Waziristan, which has given the Taliban and al Qaeda elements residing in the area considerable breathing room for reorganization and operational planning. The abrogation of the treaty, which lasted for nearly a year, saw a spasm of violence, including suicide bombings, against both military and civilian targets. If the events previously mentioned were not enough to make clear the degree of instability currently underway in Pakistan, there was also the bloody siege of the Red Mosque in downtown Islamabad. The religious students of the mosque, under the leadership of cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, had attempted to impose sharia law in the city through violence. This campaign proffered a direct challenge to the authority of the Musharraf regime and forced a showdown between the government and the religious militants.
In sum, Pervez Musharraf is facing a challenge to his rule from two sides, the first being from the radical Islamists who have attempted to assassinate the general on more than one occasion and who also challenged government authority at the Red Mosque. The other challenge is from the pro-democracy forces of Sharif and Bhutto who are urging an opening of the political system and whose protests against Musharraf ended in the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. In this situation, American policymakers are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The Bush administration is faced with a difficult choice. On the one hand, President Bush has made democracy promotion a cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda. On the other, Mr. Musharraf has been a respectable, if albeit far from perfect, ally in the aptly-named long war. It appears that the administration, much like Musharraf himself, is straddling the fence. Only in this case, the fence is between democracy promotion and terrorism prevention. The apparent American support for the now defunct power-sharing arrangement between Bhutto and Musharraf was a fine example of split priorities between the desire to support democratic reforms and enhance counterterrorism measures.
Continued assistance from the Pakistani government in the efforts against al Qaeda is of the utmost importance and should be the first priority of the commander-in-chief. As the National Intelligence Estimate released in July made clear, al Qaeda has gained a safe haven in the Wild West areas of Pakistan and is still aiming to strike within the United States. The administration needs to ask itself how it can ensure continued Pakistani support and cooperation in the war on terrorism. An opening of the political process, which could end with Sharif or Bhutto back in power, may be positive in the short term but disastrous in the long term. In this case, the Pakistani leadership would likely be less than enthusiastic in combating al Qaeda in order to shore up popular support by playing the anti-American card, to a much greater degree than currently shown by Musharraf. Secondly, the Pakistani military, which has been on the front lines in the tribal areas and suffered significant losses in battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda elements operating therein, may exhibit far less loyalty toward a politician than toward an experienced general from within its own ranks. The army, much like Turkey’s, has a long history of intervention in politics. Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former president, was himself deposed by the military and executed. Nawar Sharif’s experience with the army is little better, as it was his attempt to fire Musharraf in 1999 that touched off the general’s coup.
Finally, an opening of the system, to include a power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto, will only placate one spectrum of the opposition. The Islamist opposition, of the type so bloodily demonstrated at the Red Mosque siege and in the outbreak of violence in the siege’s wake, will continue apace. American policymakers need to be aware of this fact, because a government run by Bhutto or Sharif simply may not be up to the challenge of confronting this violent movement. If that proves to be the case, the nightmare scenario of an Islamist government with nuclear weapons comes within the realm of possibility.
The late sage of American foreign policy, Jeane Kirkpatrick, offered useful advice relevant to today’s situation in her well-known article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” published in Commentary almost thirty years ago. In making reference to past developments in Iran, Nicaragua, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and Angola, Kirkpatrick detailed how the “American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy–regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.” As Kirkpatrick’s statement makes clear, the Bush administration should tread lightly, as the last thing we need is a repeat of the revolution in Iran, this time with nuclear weapons.