Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Best We Can Expect?

Published in National Review Online on November 19, 2007



“Pakistan…compared to what?” That is the question lurking beneath our struggle to make sense of unfolding events in this troubled country. In their mind's eye, many commentators hold onto the hopeful image of a democratic Pakistan, unified by a cross-party consensus against the Islamists, fully engaged in the war on terror. If that vision is what you're comparing to the current mess, you'll be highly critical of General Musharraf. By imposing a state of emergency, jailing political opponents, and shutting down independent media, Musharraf would seem to have weakened and isolated himself, undermined chances for a democratically forged antiterrorist consensus, and even pushed his democratic opponents together with the Islamists into some sort of united opposition.

But what if the image of a democratic and antiterrorist Pakistan is a pipedream? What if the Pakistani people as a whole do not support the war on terror — and even admire the jihadists? What if the real alternative to the present mess is the catastrophe of a fractured and warring army, nuclear materials finding their way to Osama bin Laden, or even a full-scale Islamist takeover? If that's what you're comparing to the current mess, you'll be inclined to think we have little choice but to support Musharraf, even as we help patch up a fractured political situation as best we can.

So which is it? Has Musharraf selfishly destroyed the chances for a democratic and antiterrorist solution in Pakistan, or has he simply taken the least-bad way out of a dangerously deteriorating national situation? There's truth in both perspectives. Still, despite the overwhelming press bias toward the former view, the notion that Musharraf has somehow blocked an emerging democratic consensus against terror is largely a fantasy. The United States is continually frustrated by Musharraf's half-hearted fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. But what if Musharraf's maddeningly on-again/off-again offensives against the terrorists are actually better than the available alternatives? What if keeping the Pakistan's antiterrorism glass at least half-full is as good as it is realistically going to get?

Language Problem
One of our great disadvantages in dealing with Pakistan is the fact that Americans speak English. You might think sharing a common language with Pakistan's elite would allow us to make better sense of developments in that distant land. So far, the opposite is true. That's because the Pakistani elite not only knows English, they understand the West — whereas we in the West understand very little about Pakistan. This allows select Pakistani politicians and analysts to manipulate American reporters and readers with false promises of democracy and campaigns against terrorism.

Consider Jemima Khan, ex-wife of jailed cricket star and Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan. Musharraf's jailing of this charismatic sports celebrity is one of the most cringe-inducing images of the current emergency. And certainly, we can and should hope for a return to some sort of political normalcy.

Yet Khan's glamorous ex-wife, Jemima, now the leader of Britain's anti-Musharraf protests, is adept at manipulating her Western readers. Her latest oped, “The Denial of Liberty,” is full of tributes to Musharraf's “progressive, secular-minded” opponents. According to Jemima Khan, Musharraf merely uses the specter of the Taliban to stir up Western fears. The real solution to the Islamist problem, says Kahn, is free and fair elections, which would create “a secular democratic government…the very people the West needs to converse with to avoid [the] doomsday scenario” of nuclear-armed Islamists.

Sounds like Jemima Khan is promising a full-scale attack on the Taliban. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Although Jemima Khan carefully hides the full story from her Western readers, her ex-husband, Imran Khan, actually wants to break with the United States, withdraw Pakistan's army from the tribal areas, abandon patrols on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, and force America and NATO to withdraw from Afghanistan altogether. Like Jemima, Imran Khan salts his own policy recommendations with paeans to democracy and the need to build a “free society.” But what Khan means by a “free” society is a nation where Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are free to supervise their worldwide campaign of terror. What Jemima Khan never quite says about all those “progressive” and “secular-minded” folks she wants to see in power is that their “progressive” theory of how to keep nukes out of bin Laden's hands is to just leave Osama and his friends alone.

Contradictions
While Jemima Khan is busy double-talking the Brits, Pervez Hoodbhoy is one of a small group of Pakistani analysts exercising outsized influence over America's reporters. Hoodbhoy's recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Pakistan's problems start at the top,” is a study in evasion and contradiction. On the one hand, in suitably sanitized language, Hoodbhoy acknowledges the reasons why Musharraf has been unable to mount a systematic assault on the Islamists. Simply put, the Pakistani public doesn't want Musharraf to attack, because they support and admire the terrorists. Yet, having noted this, Hoodbhoy concludes that “only a freely chosen representative government can win public support for taking on the Taliban.” Really? Given what Hoodbhoy has told us about public sentiment in Pakistan, shouldn't we believe that elections will produce a boot-out-America strategy instead? While Benazir Bhutto has pledged to fight the Islamists, even Hoodbhoy doubts that she will be able to follow through on those promises.

In short, Musharraf's domestic opponents are manipulating the West into believing that Musharraf's overthrow means the end of Osama and the Taliban. In fact, an end to Musharraf likely means an end to pressure on the Islamists. What's more, Pakistan's entire history is filled with so-called democratic leaders bowing to the army, succumbing to corruption, circumventing the law, and assuming authoritarian powers. Pakistan's political intellectuals know English, and know how to tug at American heartstrings with hymns to democracy. Yet many of these same intellectuals have nothing but contempt for America and our war on terror, and lack the ability and/or intention to turn Pakistan into either an authentically liberal democracy, or a bulwark against the Islamists.

Offensive in Swat
After Musharraf declared an emergency, his opponents claimed that Musharraf was only using the Islamist insurgency as an excuse. After all, instead of sending the army to fight terrorists up in the tribal regions, Musharraf was ordering his troops to arrest political opponents in Pakistan's cities. Yet contrary to the predictions of his opponents, Musharraf has just launched a significant offensive against the Islamists in Swat. The aim is to deprive Osama and his Taliban allies of their latest territorial conquest.

No doubt Musharraf's opponents will dismiss the new offensive as a temporary sop to the Americans. That's too simple. It's true that Musharraf has a history of making antiterrorist gestures at just around the time American diplomats come calling. Now that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has paid Musharraf a visit, the time seems right to try to please the Americans. Yet Pakistan's offensive in Swat should not be written off so easily.

The fact that Musharraf is launching an assault on Swat in response to American pressure is hardly reason for complaint. The notion that some P
akistani leader is going to decide, purely on his own, to press a long-term assault against the Islamists in the northwest is a utopian fantasy. Americans are inclined to think that a truly enlightened Pakistani leader ought to recognize the deeper threat of the Islamists, and go after them consistently and with enthusiasm. But how can any Pakistani leader do this when the broader public, including sections of the army itself, see the Islamists as heroes, or at least not as enemies? Pakistan's long-term interest may well lie with the West, rather than with the radical Islamists. Unfortunately, Pakistan's broader public hasn't yet caught up to that view.

Strategic Constraints
There are also strategic reasons why no Pakistani leader is likely to push, unbidden, for the Taliban's total destruction. Pakistan is in a continual state of military tension with India. With a large, nuclear-armed rival to its east, Pakistan can ill afford a hostile Afghanistan to its West. Yet Afghanistan's current government is sympathetic to India, and largely shuts out the influence of the ethnic Pashtuns who populate southeast Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. The Taliban, made up of Pashtuns, is Pakistan's only lever for influencing Afghanistan should NATO and America pull out. So the strategic interest of any Pakistani leader will, at best, be to contain the Taliban, without totally routing them. That's why Musharraf and his army have been more willing to go after the foreigners who make up al-Qaeda than after the Taliban itself.

The remarkable thing is that, since 9/11, and at our urging, Musharraf has at least periodically moved against the Islamists. True, a little over a year ago, Musharraf effectively capitulated to al Qaeda and the Taliban, granting them safe havens which have only expanded since then. But prior to that, the Pakistani army took heavy casualties in a long struggle against the Islamists, and it is highly doubtful that a reluctant army would have made the same effort under orders from Benazir Bhutto. Even when Bhutto was in office, she had no power over the army, which largely ran Pakistan's military and foreign affairs on its own.

Given all this, Musharraf's new offensive in Swat is a potentially significant affair. It's certainly possible that the army will refuse to fight, in which case we will learn something of importance about the limits of any leader's ability to forestall the Talibanization of Pakistan.

Not Window Dressing
Yet the current offensive in Swat looks to be more than a quick effort to placate a visiting American diplomat. For one thing, Musharraf has replaced local government militias with 15,000 regular army troops, supported by Cobra attack helicopters. This means the assault is much more likely to be effective. It also means that Musharraf is risking the potential disaster of a refusal to fight, or even open rebellion, by Islamist sympathizers within the regular army itself. The Pakistani army rarely briefs the media, yet has done so in this case. A rare press briefing could be dismissed as mere posturing for international consumption, and surely it is partly that. But by going public with plans for an assault on Swat, the army has put its prestige on the line. There is even a publicly announced goal of reopening Swat to tourism by the end of December. A politically risky assault on both the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies in full public glare, with a declared time-table for victory, should not be dismissed as window-dressing.

Given the broad-based hostility to the war on terror, emergency rule during the assault on Swat may not be as ill-timed and counter-productive as some think. Of course, the long-term outlook for Pakistan in the wake of emergency rule is decidedly poor. A politically isolated Musharraf is a bad long-term bet. Yet, sad to say, when it comes to the war on terror, Musharraf's domestic opponents offer no better — and likely far worse.

A serious effort to peel back the Islamist takeover in Swat is a clever move on Musharraf's part, because it gives him a lever against the United States. If the U.S. threatens to cut off military aid in the middle of a credible attack on Swat, Musharraf can simply call off his assault. It's a dangerous game, especially given Musharraf's long-term political weakness. Yet Musharraf's opportunity to maintain American support by attacking the Islamists could be our best hope of making military progress in Pakistan. A stable and politically united Pakistan fully committed to America's war on terror would be far better than the current situation. But that fantasy is unlikely ever to be fulfilled.

So it may be that half-a-loaf is the best we can hope for. Instead of chastising the administration for the trouble in Pakistan, we should reflect on the near-miracle of Musharraf's post-9/11 turnaround. Given long-standing public sympathy for the Islamists, we're lucky Pakistan has remained in our corner this long. If the most we ever get is on-again/off-again containment of the Islamists, that sadly, may be better than any alternative on offer.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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