Pakistan Votes 'No' on the War on Terror

Published February 21, 2008

National Review Online

Everyone, from the editorial board of the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to President Bush, seems to be delighted with the results of the election in Pakistan. Color me skeptical. Have a look at this article declaring that: “Pakistan Victors Want Dialogue With Militants,” and you'll see why. Pakistan's victorious opposition parties are signaling a new approach to terrorism. That strategy “is more likely to be responsive to the consensus of the Pakistani public than was Mr. Musharraf's and is more likely to shun a heavy hand by the military and rely on dialogue with the militants.” Ah, democracy — or rather, “democracy.”

Let's review. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban make their headquarters in the hills of northwest Pakistan. From Pakistan, they launch assaults against NATO's forces in Afghanistan and spawn terror plots against Europe. Pakistan harbors Osama bin Laden and others responsible for 9/11, a network that actively continues to plan mass-terror attacks on the U.S.

Thus, the U.S. has every right to go to war with Pakistan. That we have not done so is a matter of prudence, given the fact that the chaos of war could leave some of Pakistan's nuclear weapons or materials in bin Laden's hands. Rumor has it that, shortly after 9/11, when President Bush presented President Musharraf with the choice to stand “with us or against us,” Bush made it clear that choosing “against” would mean a devastating military attack. This is the essential background against which the results of Pakistan's election have to be assessed. We seem to have forgotten these fundamental facts.

The people of Pakistan do not support the war on terror. In a recent poll, a third of Pakistanis expressed support for al-Qaeda, while half supported local jihadist groups. Since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, that support has dropped. But let's be clear: Pakistanis may abhor terrorists who kill Pakistanis, but all signs point to their being largely untroubled by terrorists who aim to destroy the West. Above all, as the Times noted Wednesday, the Pakistani consensus opposes military attacks on the tribal sanctuaries of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

That sort of direct or indirect support for terrorism is fundamentally illiberal — a far cry from the larger meaning of democracy as a broad cultural stance (rather than in the narrow sense of mere elections). The people of Pakistan are nowhere close to being liberal democrats in any sense that would yield a meaningful “democratic peace” — a phenomenon in which the fundamental interests and attitudes shared by liberal democracies lead them to cooperate and refrain from war. On the contrary, given the people of Pakistan's strong opposition to the war on terror, a “democratic” poll is likely to — surprise! — severely compromise the war on terror. If Wednesday's story in the Times is to be believed, that is exactly what's happened.

Conceivably, some well-placed pressure from the U.S. on Pakistan's new leaders might help to restore Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terror. But it's too likely that the West has been snookered. As I've argued before, Westerners — who generally understand little of Pakistan — are easily manipulated by English-speaking Pakistanis who understand a great deal about us. Western papers regularly quote politically biased Pakistani analysts, who tend to push an anti-Musharraf pro-“democracy” line that dresses up personal political interests in bogus assurances to Americans about the war on terror.

The most popular tactic is the claim that only a popularly elected party could “explain” to the Pakistani people that the war on terror is in their own interest. Wednesday's Times story is filled with such assurances. Yet when juxtaposed against pledges by Pakistan's new leaders to stop using the army to fight against terrorists, these assurances ring hollow. The question is why we ever believed them in the first place.

What's happened is quite the reverse of what Pakistani analysts have promised. Pakistan's new leaders are actually “explaining” to Americans why the war on terror will end in Pakistan. How could it be otherwise? Nawaz Sharif explicitly campaigned against military cooperation with America — bragging about his repeated refusal to take calls from President Clinton over the development of Pakistan's bomb, and contrasting this with Musharraf's knuckling under to Bush after just one phone call.

It's true that Sharif will play a double game with the U.S., making small gestures of cooperation when he can. But his constituency is fundamentally opposed to the war on terror, and playing to that view will be irresistible in his “democracy.” What's so striking about Wednesday's Times story is that even Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now echoes Sharif's anti-war-on-terror line.

It's also true that Musharraf was playing a double game, caught as he was between a tenuous alliance with the U.S. and a Pakistani public that loathes the war on terror. His own army and intelligence services are deeply divided over the issue, and Pakistan has strategic interests in maintaining ties to the Taliban (who represent Pakistan's best lever to prevent Afghanistan from allying with India, should NATO pull out of Afghanistan.) Yet Musharraf's independent base of support in Pakistan's heretofore all-powerful military provided far more room to cooperate with the U.S. than the leaders of either victorious “democratic” opposition party will enjoy.

As incomplete and unsatisfactory as Musharraf's cooperation has been, he has done far more to help in the war on terror than he is given credit for doing. While Musharraf did settle with the Taliban over a year ago, allowing its power to spread, it was only after Pakistan essentially lost a four-year campaign to gain control of the tribal northwest. And after declaring emergency rule, Musharraf ordered a significant and largely successful assault against Taliban positions in Swat.

Then, just before the election, the army executed an important offensive in South Waziristan, which exploited tribal rivalries and succeeded in opening up important rifts within the Taliban. True, the assault was halted as part of a deal with the Taliban to reduce terror attacks during the election, but the offensive showed that Pakistan's army is capable of containing the Taliban if and when it wants to, a fact that allowed the army to bargain from strength.

Caught between the U.S. and a public that opposes the war on terror, Musharraf has little choice but to deal in half-measures. Even so, his base in the army gives him far more ability to bring resu
lts than “democratic” leaders with no links to the army, who came to power thanks to an electorate that wants to end military assaults in the northwest.

Enraptured by the romance of bogus democratization, the American media has simply failed to report on any of this. Wednesday, the Times piously explained that Pakistan's newly elected leaders plan to shun Musharraf's “heavy handed” military approach. But when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the Times essentially refused to cover the military's offensive in Swat, not to mention its subsequent assaults in South Waziristan. Back then, the media line was that Musharraf declared an emergency to fight terror — but hadn't lifted a finger to do so. The Western media simply follows whatever anti-Musharraf line is being doled out by Pakistani analysts and opposition leaders, and utterly shirked its duty to do independent reporting on the military actions that took place during the state of emergency.

Meanwhile, conservative supporters of the war on terror have consistently ignored or minimized Musharraf's military actions because they hope for the sort of systematic destruction of the Taliban that no Pakistani leader can afford to undertake. Like so many liberals, a lot of conservatives believe the myth that mere electoral democracy will solve all of these problems. Supposedly, genuinely popular elected leaders will convince the Pakistani people that the war on terror is in their interest. But this is expecting a degree of leadership wholly unlikely in a fragile, illiberal, and utterly “populist” (in the worst sense) democracy.

However much our ignorance about Pakistan's internal politics left us subject to the manipulations of Pakistan's English-speaking elite, fundamentally we were fooling ourselves. We didn't want to acknowledge that, in a country as underdeveloped and illiberal as Pakistan, electoral democracy actually cuts against the war on terror — not in favor of it. Liberals look to democracy as a substitute for war. Conservatives hope for democracy as a go-ahead for the definitive battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda. But Pakistanis see democracy as an opportunity to put an end to America's war on terror, and we are fools to think otherwise.

They'll take our money, though. Already Senator Joseph Biden is talking about tripling our already substantial aid to Pakistan. Biden wants to shift aid to civilian projects and rigidly control the use of any military aid. (I didn't notice anything about controls on abuse of civilian aid, though.) I agree with Biden that, over the long term, building up Pakistan's secular schools and creating modern infrastructure is the best way to bring cultural change and give the Pakistani people a stake in the alliance with America. Yet this will make a difference only over time, and the war on terror can't be put off for years.

There is plenty of reason to believe that the already famously corrupt leaders of Pakistan's “democratic” parties will use American aid more as a source of loot for their cronies than to help their country. I'd be willing to risk such abuse if these leaders showed any signs of actually working to persuade Pakistanis to cooperate in the war on terror. But after Wednesday's Times story, I say: “Not a penny more.” Will Congress now triple aid to corrupt leaders who have pledged to end military action against terrorists who want to destroy us? Continue military aid at current levels and block Biden's increase until the new civilian leaders change their tune.

One could argue that Wednesday's public claims by Zardari and Sharif should not be taken too seriously. After all, they have to placate a public that opposes the war on terror. When push comes to shove, perhaps Zardari and Sharif will cooperate with us. Unfortunately, I find it very difficult to put such a benign interpretation on their statements against military action. The whole point of this election (the West was repeatedly assured by Pakistani politicians and analysts) was to allow democratic leaders to persuade the Pakistani people to look more favorably on the war on terror. The public statements so clearly promising a break with Musharraf's policy of cooperation will be tough to take back. They constitute a promise to the Pakistani people, and they may have been made so quickly in order to present the U.S. with a fait accompli.

In short, we have been snookered — but we've done it to ourselves. Liberal and conservative alike, we kept comparing Musharraf to the alternative of a genuine terror-fighting democracy and find him wanting. That is a mistake. What we should be comparing Musharraf to is the alternative of full-scale war with a chaotic and nuclear-armed Pakistan. We've chosen poorly, and the hour is late.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.

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