Pakistan’s Plea For Patience

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 16/06/08):

It’s easy to imagine the gloating smirk on the face of Pervez Musharraf. The autocratic ruler of Pakistan from October 1999 until February 2008 still sits in the sprawling home reserved for the country’s army commander, though he gave up the post last year. He is still president, though he has lost much of his power to an elected civilian government. For years, Musharraf resisted pressure from Washington to allow this return to democracy, arguing that only he could serve as a reliable partner in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Now he might point to democracy’s result: a fractious parliamentary coalition all but paralyzed by byzantine political struggles; rebellious lawyers and judges, who last week marched on the capital; and soaring food prices and power shortages, which threaten to trigger mass unrest.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s army and security forces are refraining from action against Taliban and al-Qaeda havens in the tribal territories along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Those bases are being used for attacks on American troops in Afghanistan and are the most likely launching pad for a new terrorist strike against the United States. A confused firefight on the border last week, in which U.S. forces may have killed Pakistani soldiers, only illustrated how far the countries are from cooperating effectively against the looming threat.

“You see?” the old general might say. “This is what your demand for democracy in Pakistan has brought about.”

The question is serious — even if Musharraf has refrained from raising it in public. Has the push for Pakistani democracy exposed the United States to greater risk of another 9/11? Has it made an already-volatile Muslim country with a nuclear arsenal even more vulnerable to an Islamic revolution or collapse into a failed state?

The need for a response helps explain the speed with which Husain Haqqani has been shuttling around Washington. The former adviser to assassinated People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto presented his credentials as Pakistan’s new ambassador in Washington on June 6. Within hours he was rushing to and from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress in an attempt to buy tolerance — and time — for his fragile government.

“The legacy of the past,” Haqqani points out, is that “democratic governments in Pakistan have been set up for failure.” The generals act without consulting them — like the corps and intelligence commanders, appointed by Musharraf, who struck a truce with the notorious Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and then allowed him to hold a news conference at which he promised to intensify attacks on Americans in Afghanistan. Musharraf has caused much of the political turmoil in Islamabad by refusing to resign as president, triggering a debate over whether he should be impeached, ousted through a restoration of the supreme court he dismissed last year, or gradually coaxed into retirement.

“All of this is sapping a lot of energy and taking attention away from a lot of other things,” Haqqani argues. For example, the new government has developed a five-point plan for combating extremism in the tribal areas that includes economic development, political reforms and negotiations with tribal leaders who might be turned against the Taliban. It has suspended negotiations with Mehsud and announced that it will not agree to any cease-fires that do not include a halt to attacks in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan and the expulsion of foreign fighters — which means al-Qaeda.

Haqqani’s pitch is that the United States ought to invest in the success of a civilian government that might look weak and divided now but that, if consolidated, would deliver more than Musharraf ever did. “While it’s difficult for people to get used to, in the end it will be better for the United States to work with a Pakistani democracy rather than a single general,” he said in a visit to The Post. “Instead of having one person who makes commitments he doesn’t live up to” — Musharraf’s record in a nutshell — “you have multiple power centers that come to a consensus, then implement it.”

The ambassador says the Bush administration is playing along, in some ways. It is trying to route military and intelligence communications through civilians in the government, for example, rather than talking directly to military commanders. The problem is that each day that al-Qaeda is allowed a haven on Pakistani soil raises the threat it poses to Pakistan and the United States.

I asked Haqqani if he and his new ministers in Islamabad had thought about what would happen to Pakistan and its newly reborn democracy if a major al-Qaeda attack against the United States succeeded and was traced back to the tribal areas. “What do you think keeps me up at night?” he answered. “We want to make sure that it doesn’t come to that.” Then he was off to the next stop on his tour, and his next plea for patience.