Feb 23, 2008
Limited options for US in Pakistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
The George W Bush administration lost no time reiterating its support of President Pervez Musharraf following the February 18 parliamentary elections. There is bipartisan consensus in Washington that in the given circumstances, the United States has very little leeway other than depending on Musharraf and the Pakistani military. The leading Republican contender in the US presidential race, Senator John McCain, bluntly rejected the calls for Musharraf's resignation, even calling the Pakistani leader "a legitimately elected president". Top Democrats - Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator John Kerry - as well as the influential Republican figure Senator "Chuck" Hagel, who were in Pakistan as election "observers", also implicitly endorsed Washington's reiteration of Musharraf being a key US ally. Indeed, there seems to be a bipartisan understanding in Washington that the US finds itself on slippery turf in Pakistan. Any perspective on the US predicament in Pakistan solely in terms of Washington's commitment to the forces of democracy and change will be too simplistic. There are several factors at work that seriously limit the US options in Pakistan.
Fractured election verdictFirst, a close assessment of the election results in Pakistan will show that what is available from the February 18 polls is a fractured verdict by the Pakistani people. A coalition government has become inevitable. This does not augur well for political stability. Coalition politics would be far too sophisticated for Pakistan at this juncture. The requisite political culture of give-and-take needs to develop over time. Besides, PPP and PML-N are both centrist parties, which are vying more or less for the same political space. A political alliance between the two parties - a "grand coalition" - cannot endure for long due to their mutual antipathies rooted in history and their divergent ideologies. Also, Washington has a sense of uneasiness about the PML-N's plank of "Islamist nationalism". It may not be warranted, but it is there. PML-N seems to be already anticipating an early mid-term poll and likely sees the February 18 election as only a "semi-final". In any case, PML-N's priority will be to consolidate in the heartland province of Punjab, where it is poised to form the government. As for the PPP leadership, its priorities are different from PML-N's. After some 11 years in political wilderness, the party seniors are naturally eager to grasp the opportunity to form the new government at the federal level as well as in Sindh province. In Sindh, PPP may well have to co-habit with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the party of migrants from India, which is a strong supporter of Musharraf. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that PPP does not have the stomach for confrontational politics at this juncture. Tthe assassination of Benazir Bhutto has also created uncertainties within the party. The party is in a sensitive phase of change of leadership, the outcome of which is far from clear. In fact, there are powerful crosscurrents within the party, which are bound to play out in the near future. In sum, PPP is passing through a delicate phase in its history, which puts it somewhat on the defensive and inhibits its sense of adventure even when it is riding a popular wave and has been chosen as Pakistan's ruling party despite heavy odds. Pashtun nationalismA far more worrisome development for Washington should be the capture of power in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) by the Awami National Party (ANP). Foreign observers are yet to size up the profound implications of an ANP government, which espouses Pashtun nationalism, in the sensitive province bordering Afghanistan. The ANP's electoral success over the Islamic parties is being commonly seen as signifying a rout of the forces of extremism and as the victory of the secularist platform. While this is manifestly so, what cannot be overlooked at the same time is that the ANP also has a long tradition of left-wing politics and consistent opposition to US "imperialism". Significantly, in the present party line-up, ANP expresses its closest affinity with PML-N - and not PPP to which it ought to be ideologically closer. Without doubt, ANP has opposed the US's support of Israel, the US invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's intimidation of Iran. It has vehemently criticized Washington's policies allegedly aimed at establishing US hegemony. It has condemned the US forces' operations in the Pashtun regions in southern Afghanistan during the "war on terror". On Wednesday, the ANP leadership reiterated its demand for "peaceful means to end militancy in the [NWFP] province and the adjacent tribal areas". In practical terms, an ANP government in power in Peshawar will find it impossible to lend support to the sort of military operations that the US would expect the Pakistani military to undertake in the border regions with Afghanistan for ending "militant activities". Interestingly, ANP makes a clear careful distinction between "militancy" and "terrorism". To be sure, the ANP will point out that the US is pursuing its own national interests in Afghanistan and is expecting Pakistan to kill the Pashtun militants so as to save American lives. The ANP will also demand that Pashtun alienation in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas must be addressed through dialogue and political accommodation as well as through a long-term policy of economic development of the region. The noisy election has been largely portrayed as a referendum on Musharraf's controversial rule, whereas the specter that is haunting Washington is the widespread opposition to the "war on terror" in Pakistan. This opposition cuts across provinces, ethnic and religious groups or social classes in both rural and urban areas. The US's perceived hostility toward the Muslim people is at the root of this anti-Americanism, and it will not easily fade away. No elected government in Islamabad can afford to ignore the enormous groundswell of anti-Americanism, however realistic it wants to be about the importance to Pakistan of a close, friendly relationship with the US. The election results have exploded the myths regarding the "creeping Talibanization" of Pakistan and the "jihadi" threat to the Pakistani state. The propaganda will no longer sell that Pakistan is on the abyss of anarchy. Pakistan does not need Western intervention to save it from becoming a "failed state". Equally, it is very obvious that the transborder movement of the Taliban is only part of the problem. There is a resistance movement active within Afghanistan against foreign military occupation. And the root cause of terrorism within Pakistan is to be traced to the US-led military operations in Afghanistan, which are often pursued with needless arrogance and brute force, and the consequent wave of anger in the tribal areas that the Musharraf regime is serving American interests in the region. Therefore, a democratically elected government in Pakistan - especially the NWFP provincial government - will be compelled to review the tactics being followed by the Pakistani military in pacifying the tribal areas. It is bound to insist that while terrorism must be countered, militants have to be won over and the use of force must be an exception rather than the rule. The bottom line is that Pakistan will not allow itself to be hustled by Washington into acting in terms of the Bush administration's calendar. The emphasis will be on befriending the Pakistani tribesmen and on long-term solution. No doubt, an elected government will have difficulty acquiescing with the use of air power and artillery in the tribal areas. There is of course no question of any political party in Pakistan agreeing to US military operations on Pakistani territory. Musharraf's importanceAll in all, if the idea behind a free and fair election in Pakistan was to give a democratic facade to the Musharraf regime and to somehow get the new representative setup led by national parties to provide political underpinning for the pursuit of robust military operations in the tribal areas, that is not what the fractured election result is leading to. Given this complex scenario, what options would the Bush administration have? The dilemma for the Bush administration is that it is running against the clock in Afghanistan. The war is deteriorating and there is urgent need to stem the tide. The coming 10 months will be a decisive period in determining the fate of the war. The Bush administration is working on a new Afghan strategy to be discussed at the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) taking place in Bucharest, Romania, in April. Pakistan's role in the war happens to be a critical component of that strategy. The political uncertainties in Pakistan following the elections come at a most awkward time. Unsurprisingly, taking all factors into account, the Bush administration has concluded that Musharraf is a "known factor" and it is prudent to depend on him to lead Pakistan through the difficult period ahead. This approach has serious limitations insofar as in the medium and long term it is only a democratically elected government that can effectively counter militancy and terrorism. But, then, the Bush administration simply does not have the luxury of taking a long-term perspective. A failure in Afghanistan would be a severe setback to NATO's aspirations to emerge as a global political organization. It will impact on the US's trans-Atlantic leadership role. Those who clamor for the Bush administration to review its decision to back Musharraf overlook the great urgency of the situation. Washington's first preference is a coalition between PPP and PML-N working with Musharraf. But that may be too much to hope for. At a minimum, the US would convince PPP leader Asif Zardari to work with Musharraf, which seems to be within the realms of possibility, while American diplomats keep working patiently on the PML-N leadership to show flexibility and pragmatism vis-a-vis Musharraf. In fact, there is an interesting pattern whereby Washington backs Musharraf while American diplomats in Pakistan cast their net wider. A short-term policy of expediency going hand in hand with a radically different longer-term approach - by no means an easy task to achieve in diplomacy. As for Musharraf, he would also see this equation as both posing an onerous challenge and a welcome opportunity. As he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview on Wednesday, "whatever government there is, I'm pretty sure they will continue to fight terrorism and extremism. Why would any government change its priorities? I think the policy will remain consistent." But the political parties' reticence about the "war on terror" also provides wriggle room for the Pakistani military in resisting unreasonable US pressure. Thus, Musharraf added in his interview, "I don't think relationships between nations are tied to individuals. There are mutual, national interests that lead to personal relationships. It's not the other way around. It's the mutual interests in the region, especially the fight against terrorism, that has led to our strategic relationship. Now it is broad-based, and long term. So it's an issue-based relationship, which has led to a personal relationship with President [Bush], and I cherish the relationship."
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).