The Pakistan Policy Predicament

By Teresita C. Shaffer. She is the South Asia Program Director at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). From 1989 to 1992, she served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia; from 1992 to 1995, she was the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka (THE WASHINGTON POST, 01/08/07):

The Administration is wrestling with policy toward Pakistan. The intelligence estimate about al Qaeda using the border areas of Pakistan as a safe haven has put Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan on the front pages. The United States would much prefer to address this problem with Pakistan rather than mounting a military intervention that would surely turn all of Pakistan, including its army, against the U.S. President Bush and the administration’s key personalities still believe Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is the best hope for U.S. interests in the region. But thus far, policy toward Pakistan clearly has not delivered what they had hoped for on the Afghan front.

At the same time, Musharraf is in trouble, with three interlocking domestic issues in play. First is the wave of political protest unleashed by his decision to suspend Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry, who Musharraf thought might be unfriendly. The Supreme Court has now reversed it in an unusual display of judicial independence. This episode weakened Musharraf and sharply reduced his moral authority.

Second, the Supreme Court decision shoots a hole in Musharraf’s election strategy. He faces an indirect election for the Presidency and direct elections for the National and Provincial Assemblies in the next five months. Both the sequence of these elections and his desire to retain the dual posts of Army Chief and President are legally and politically contested, and will be challenged in the courts. The courts could well rule against the government.

Finally, the government’s action against the defiant law-breaking by the staff and students of Islamabad’s Red Mosque raised Musharraf’s standing briefly, but the high death toll during and since that operation, and the continued fighting in the frontier regions, has made the action — and Musharraf — even more controversial.

The administration has maintained a highly personal policy for the past five years, centered on Musharraf. This balance has shifted slightly in recent weeks. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, testifying July 25 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not discuss Musharraf personally until the last few minutes of his statement. The administration has welcomed the Pakistani Supreme Court decision (as did the Pakistani government). The United States has also reiterated its call for free and fair elections. But Musharraf is still the embodiment of U.S. policy toward Pakistan; Burns’s testimony referred to him as “the partner we need.”

Prescriptions on offer from Washington’s think tanks include more careful targeting of aid, especially military; various thoughts about policy conditionality, again especially regarding military supply; a major effort to develop a joint strategy for Afghanistan; general support for the Administration’s proposed economic aid package for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; and across the board, strong opposition to U.S. military intervention in the tribal areas. Everyone favors strengthening the political side of Pakistan’s government and holding free elections, but there are disagreements about how important an issue this should be for the United States.

The most difficult area of policy is how to reconcile the dominant role the Pakistani Army has played in politics for much of Pakistan’s history with the army’s track record in dealing with extremist organizations. In the past, the army has generally designed its occasional crackdowns on extremist organizations to bring them under better control, not to put them out of business. Some people believe this is the best that can be hoped for. I think this fine balance is unsustainable.

Partly as a result, and especially in light of the Pakistani Supreme Court decision, I believe the U.S. needs to strengthen its call for genuinely free elections, quietly urging Musharraf to choose between heading the army and running for President. Empowered political leadership will have greater legitimacy than what Musharraf now enjoys. If it plays its cards right, it will have a better shot at suppressing the extremists who have been brazenly flouting the most basic authority of the state.

But there is a catch. If a future leader of Pakistan — and there will be one some day regardless of what happens in the elections — wants to shift from controlling violent extremist groups to suppressing them, he or she will need to use the army for this purpose. The army will need to be a participant in this decision, and the new leader will need to command the army, in fact and not just in name. The army is more likely to be persuaded if the campaign is based on the extremist groups’ violent challenge to state authority rather than on their religious character. The trick will be to sustain the effort for as long as necessary, to create a political consensus behind the new policy, and to change the hedging policies that have looked on violent groups as a foreign policy asset. The recent shocking events in both Islamabad and the Northwest Frontier Province makes clear that they are now a pressing domestic danger.