Musharraf Goes Splat

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 11/11/07):

Pakistan is an unusual country — a nation capable of looking into the abyss, pausing briefly to consider its options and then jumping headfirst into darkness. The willingness to go splat has been the backbone of Pakistan’s national survival strategy for its 60-year history.

Whether rattling nuclear rockets at a much more powerful India or allowing terrorist networks to use Pakistani territory to mount plots against Afghan, American and British targets, the country’s leaders have raised political blackmail to a national and international art form. Oppose or ignore us at our — and your — peril is the unofficial national motto of Islamabad.

An emotionally taut President Pervez Musharraf has dragged his country and its foreign patrons to the brink again by declaring emergency rule and intensifying a triangular power struggle with the nation’s secular political parties and with the religious extremists who expect to rise from the ashes created by their Western-oriented rivals.

Musharraf retains the backing of the Pakistani army — the only cohesive and enduring political movement in the country’s history — but that can change in the blink of an eye. Musharraf knows better than anyone that there is always another political general in the wings.

The Bush administration has been slow and unsteady in coming to terms with the rough-and-tumble nature of Pakistani statecraft and politics. Only late this summer did U.S. and British officials conclude that Musharraf had lost his once-deft political touch in engaging the country’s courts, lawyers and students in angry but erratic and inconclusive confrontations.

Washington and London then engineered a desperate effort to save Musharraf from himself by persuading the Pakistani president to let former prime minister Benazir Bhutto return last month from exile. The idea was that the two would share power: She would serve as Musharraf’s political eyes and ears, and he would prepare the way for her to run the country eventually.

That ploy has blown up in the face of those who designed it. On Nov. 3, Musharraf abruptly staged what amounts to his second coup d’etat by declaring emergency rule. Since then, he and the coldly calculating Bhutto have alternately clashed and made overtures to each other on the scheduling of elections in 2008 and over Musharraf’s ban on public protests. In Pakistan, brinks come in his and her varieties.

This struggle is now more about local power dynamics than about restoring democracy, which never sank deep roots in Pakistan. The country’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, set the pattern by dismissing its first legislature and ruling by decree. His successors have consistently plunged ahead in the same come-what-may spirit when faced with opposition or crisis.

A retired Pakistani diplomat recently underlined to me the sad results of that approach by noting: “We have had only one election in our history that was considered fair and free. And that was in 1970.”

The political divisions and conflicts provoked by that bitterly fought election triggered a genocidal campaign by the Pakistani army against the country’s eastern wing, which broke away to become Bangladesh. Infuriated and humiliated by India’s open intervention on the side of the rebels in the east, Yahya Khan, then military ruler, launched a doomed strike along India’s western frontier. New Delhi chose to treat it as a pinprick rather than stage the devastating retaliation it could have mounted.

Covering that war introduced me to Pakistan and to the political fatalism that makes it such a difficult ally and dangerous enemy. An Islamic state carved out of the imperial British version of India, Pakistan — like other religious states — tends to see its national destiny as a matter of divine will rather than personal responsibility.

Successive leaders, military and civilian, have encouraged or tolerated the world’s most damaging spread of nuclear technology and international terrorism from Pakistani territory. They have encouraged or tolerated massive corruption at home, some of it funded by foreign aid from the United States and other countries frightened of the consequences of not providing it. They have also preferred to see Afghanistan engulfed in suicide bombings rather than become a stable neighbor.

Musharraf actually did a fair job of controlling and limiting some of these self-destructive practices early in his reign, especially with regard to India. He in fact negotiated a secret draft agreement on Kashmir that is now unlikely ever to see the light of day.

The Bush administration, when it had the opportunity, failed to push him hard enough to curb corruption and to train and use his army in counterinsurgency campaigns along the Pakistani-Afghan border. In extremis, Musharraf, too, threatens to go splat, and Washington is reduced to waiting to see what will happen.