Monday, November 5, 2007

Neoconservatism, Pakistan, and U.S. Foreign Policy

A unfriendly commenter to my recent post on Pakistan's political crisis remarked: "You reap what you sow, neocon."

As is my practice, I simply ignore drive-by rants such as this, especially as they are normally anonymous, Ill-informed, and meant to intimidate. Besides, I have neither the time nor the inclination to fill-in the clueless on the necessary political trade-offs in a nation's quest for security in international relations.

In the case of the Bush administration, Pakistan since 9/11 has been a front-line ally in the war on terror. Yet President Bush bargained with the devil in backing the regime in Islamabad, which moved away from democracy with Perfez Musharraf's coup d'etat of 1999.
The Los Angeles Times discusses the new calculus of American foreign policy amid Pakistan's state of emergency. Democracy or security, is that the question?

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seemed to be one of the Bush administration's most valuable foreign friends after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he denounced Al Qaeda and the Taliban and joined the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

But the value of that friendship has come into question again and again in the last six years, and may be most in doubt today.

Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule Saturday has isolated him at home and abroad, and suggests that President Bush has risked his stated goals and principles for an ally who couldn't deliver on a fundamental promise: to hold together his turbulent country while facing down militant Islamists.

In Musharraf, an American president sometimes accused of naive neoconservative faith in democracy made the ultimate realist's bargain to help prop up an authoritarian leader.

The step Musharraf has taken now has raised fears that the world may end up with a nuclear-armed state that is at once more fractured and host to a stronger Islamic militant force.

The move is making Bush's deal look more like the one U.S. presidents made with the shah of Iran, whose authoritarian rule opened the way in 1979 to a resentfully anti-U.S. uprising and Islamist regime.

Bush has sought to reassure Americans that Musharraf, an army general who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, was worthy of their trust. "He shares the same concerns about radicals and extremists," Bush said at an Aug. 9 news conference.

Yet from the beginning, U.S. officials have acknowledged concerns that the Pakistani government was not doing enough to foster democracy and halt nuclear proliferation. And an increasing number of U.S. officials have become convinced that Musharraf's regime hasn't done enough to fight militant Islamists.

One of the administration's top priorities has been halting the spread of nuclear know-how. Yet Musharraf has not been willing to allow the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency to interview A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, which had been a source of nuclear knowledge for countries such as North Korea and Iran.

Musharraf promised Bush from the beginning that he would eventually give up his position as head of the army, Pakistan's most powerful institution, and hold free and fair elections at the risk of ending his own rule. Yet his declaration of emergency rule has been widely judged a desperate attempt to hold onto power as the Pakistani Supreme Court deliberated on the validity of his recent reelection.

And though Musharraf's government has lost hundreds of soldiers since 2001 fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban, there always has been an ambivalence about the fight. Some members of the army's intelligence agency and other units have had ties to radical groups and believe they have a strategic value as a proxy in facing down rivals such as India.

And the Pakistani regime is wary of taking too many casualties or alienating parts of its population in a fight that many Pakistanis believe is largely inspired by the United States.

Many Pentagon officials have become increasingly frustrated by their partnership with the Pakistanis, believing that the army is all too eager to get the billions of dollars in U.S. aid it has received since 2001 but less eager to join the fight.
The dilemma for the U.S. has been building all year. In a September follow-up to his July/August analysis of Pakistan's political crisis in Foreign Affairs, Daniel Markey argues that the U.S. has no choice but to work with Pakistan to achieve both democracy and security. Markey reflects on Pakistan's summer crisis involving the state's attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad:

On July 10, after a siege of several months, Pakistan's security forces stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque, leaving at least 100 people dead. In a somber address to the nation, President Pervez Musharraf declared that the terrorists within the mosque compound had "challenged the government's writ as a whole," by seeking to introduce a Taliban-style legal system into the heart of Pakistan's capital city. His message was a clear articulation of the new strategic outlook: Pakistan's Islamist militants could no longer be viewed as pliant tools, but must instead be confronted as a threat to the nation.

Musharraf then backed his words with a renewed military offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Unfortunately, the militants responded with a series of deadly and demoralizing suicide attacks throughout the country and a unilateral withdrawal from the ceasefire "deals" they had struck with the Pakistani government. In late August, hundreds of Pakistani troops were reportedly taken prisoner by an extremely small contingent of Taliban fighters--an unprecedented event in Pakistani history. And just last week, an attack on the elite Special Services Group in the commandos' mess hall left 15 soldiers dead. There is strong evidence that the army is deeply shaken and that at least some officers are looking for ways to sidestep a fight that they still do not see as their own.

Facing this apparent crisis of confidence, Pakistan has received precious little encouragement from the United States. Over the summer, Pakistanis were treated to a series of highly publicized statements--most famously by Senator Barack Obama--suggesting that the United States should take unilateral action against militants inside Pakistan if Musharraf's government proves unwilling or unable to do the job. Whether or not the United States might someday seize the opportunity to take a clear shot at Osama bin Laden is beside the point. Threatening Pakistani sovereignty to play out a hypothetical scenario was bad diplomacy. It undermined Pakistan's trust in the United States at a sensitive time.

On the political front, pre-election jockeying for power accelerated and took a few surprising turns. Musharraf compounded his blunder of suspending Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry with a series of clumsy attempts to manage the fallout, each backfiring worse than the last. Musharraf's regime succeeded in harassing the media, stirring up bloody ethnic tensions in Karachi, and alienating Pakistan's lawyers as well as a wide cross-section of moderate opinion leaders. Washington's reaction did not help. The U.S. government's quiet acceptance of Chaudhry's suspension gave Pakistanis no reason to believe that the United States was sincere in promoting either the rule of law or judicial independence in Pakistan.

In the end, Musharraf lost popular support and failed in his bid to remove the chief justice. Musharraf's political rivals quickly seized the opening offered by a more independent, even oppositional, judiciary. Foremost among these rivals, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appealed the terms of his ten-year exile, won the right to return to Pakistan, and staged a dramatic comeback attempt on September 10. In preparation, government security forces put Islamabad on lockdown and jailed thousands of Sharif's party organizers around the country. Upon landing, Sharif was quickly bundled up and "re-exiled" to Saudi Arabia to live under the watchful eye of the royal family.

The forceful steps that Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), took against Sharif merely confirmed a widely-held belief that the party has failed to win the popular support needed to stave off even a recycled and discredited politician. In recent months, the prospect of Sharif's return to politics became a rallying point for more conservative political parties--including Islamists. Although his deportation may be a setback for those advocating a completely level electoral playing field, it may also have served the interests of moderates and progressives seeking to marginalize Pakistan's extreme right.

The other former prime minister from the 1990s, Benazir Bhutto, has taken a different approach in her summer power play. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party still commands significant grass-roots support, but she has sought to negotiate her way into Pakistan by sealing a deal with Musharraf that would pave the way for her return to the prime minister's office. The deep mutual distrust between Bhutto and Musharraf, combined with the opposition of the conservative PML-Q leadership, who would lose power in such an arrangement, has until now prevented a deal.

Given the paucity of other viable options, Washington should support such a power-sharing agreement in order to facilitate freer and fairer national elections this fall. The United States should also continue to deliver robust military and diplomatic support to the Pakistani army.

If the United States plays its cards correctly over the next six months, Pakistan could become an even more stable U.S. partner in the war on terror; Islamabad's military leadership could be complemented by a cast of popularly elected civilians; and the foundations could be laid for a transition to sustainable democratic governance.

The alternative - allowing Musharraf and the PML-Q to run rigged elections and silence opponents - will only lead to harsher authoritarianism. Such a strategy would very clearly place Musharraf and the United States on one side, unifying the spectrum of Pakistan's political opposition - from progressives to Islamists - on the other. The balance would eventually tip, leaving Washington with few friends in Islamabad, and little hope of advancing U.S. interests, either in terms of democracy promotion or counter-terrorism.
Well, Pakistan's not becoming more stable, and harsher authoritarianism is here. Musharraf may have been a necessary exception to the administration's neoconservative impulse toward democracy promotion, but our long-run interests will be to put aside realism and push Islamabad back toward constitutionalism. Both ideals and interests will be served with such a move.