For years the U.S. has attempted to mold Pakistan.
The result is not pretty: an unstable, undemocratic state which possesses nuclear
weapons, border provinces which offer safe haven to Taliban and al-Qaeda forces,
and people who loath the American government. The murder of opposition leader
Benazir Bhutto is merely the latest blow to Washington's plans.
Pakistan was born in violence as part of Britain's partition of its Indian
colony on the way to independence. The seeds of continuing international conflict
were sown by leaving the bulk of primarily Muslim Kashmir in Hindu India. Equally
foolish was concocting a geographically divided Pakistan in which the peoples
of east and west shared little other than religion.
During the Cold War Washington used Islamabad to balance against an India
which leaned towards the Soviet Union. It was never a good bet: India was more
democratic and militarily stronger, besting Pakistan in two (or three, counting
an early battle over Kashmir) wars. The last one, in 1971, birthed an independent
Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. Today Bangladesh is poorer and perhaps even
less stable than Pakistan – though, mercifully, it lacks nuclear weapons.
During the 1980s Pakistan was America's primary conduit of aid to Afghan
mujahedeen forces fighting the Soviets. Since 2001 Pakistan again has been a
front-line state, this time in allied efforts to eradicate al-Qaeda and suppress
the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Even as the Bush administration was constructing a fanciful "axis of evil"
out of the disparate nations of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Pakistan was proving
to be a greater problem. First, despite receiving more than $10 billion from
the U.S. since 9/11, Islamabad was but an indifferent ally in the war on terror.
The Musharraf regime delivered up some al-Qaeda operatives, but was thought
to shelter others. The northwestern provinces, never fully under the central
government's control, provided refuge to anti-American forces, including, it
was often charged, Osama bin Laden.
The Pakistani military was either unable or unwilling (or, more likely,
both) to eliminate these sanctuaries. The bottom line for Islamabad was ensuring
regime survival, not aiding America. Even Musharraf's limited cooperation angered
the Pakistani people, almost half of whom said in a recent CNN poll that they
approved of bin Laden.
Pakistan also embodied the problem of nuclear proliferation, having built
an "Islamic bomb" despite Washington's opposition. Today the regime is thought
to possess as many as 120 nuclear warheads, though estimates vary wildly. Even
worse, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, set up an international
"Nukes-R-Us," peddling his wares around the globe. After his activities were
discovered, the Pakistani government professed its shock, shock. But the Musharraf
regime refused to make him available to U.S. intelligence, inflaming skepticism
in Washington of the claim that planeloads of nuclear materials were being shipped
around the world without anyone in Islamabad knowing anything.
Finally, Musharraf, who seized power from an elected government in a coup,
paid only the barest pretense to democratic forms despite the Bush administration's
loud crusade for democracy. Not that Pakistani democracy, which tended to alternate
irregularly with military rule, met America's standards. For instance, Prime
Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of recently murdered Benazir Bhutto, refused
to honor the results of the 1971 election, triggering a civil war between east
and west, leading to India's intervention. He also opened his nation's drive
for nuclear weapons in 1972. (Bhutto was later ousted and executed by Gen. Mohammed
Zia-ul Haq, who himself died in a mysterious plane crash.)
Nor were the more recent reigns of Benazir Bhutto and Muhammad Nawaz Sharif
much better. They continued work on nuclear weapons, leading to Pakistan's first
tests in 1998. The two civilian leaders allied with the Taliban, supported Middle
Eastern militants, and tolerated religious persecution at home. Both were thought
to profit from the corruption that pervades public life in Pakistan. Indeed,
Benazir Bhutto was ousted from office twice in response to claims of corruption.
and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, were convicted in Swiss court and he was
jailed for years in Pakistan on corruption charges. He was released
only in a politically inspired amnesty.
As a result, few mourned the demise of democracy after Pervez Musharraf's
October 1999 coup against Prime Minister Sharif. Musharraf proclaimed: "I would
like to move away from the sham democracy we have had in Pakistan." Of course,
he did no such thing. Last fall he even staged a coup against his own government,
using the state of emergency to replace members of the supreme court, thereby
ensuring its approval of another presidential term.
This was not to the Bush administration's liking, but there was little
it could do. For decades the U.S. provided aid, sold weapons, and offered diplomatic
support to whatever regime happened to be in power in Islamabad. Yet America
had minimal success in promoting domestic reform.
Foreign aid has done little anywhere to generate economic growth, and tens
of billions of dollars – from the U.S., World Bank, Asian Development Bank,
International Monetary Fund, and other institutions – for Pakistan proved to
be no exception. The country of 165 million remains desperately poor, with a
per capita GDP of just $829 in 2006, despite enjoying better than average economic
growth of late. Nor did America's ministrations result in much liberalization
of Pakistani politics, even during formally democratic episodes. True democracy
requires far more than occasional elections, but Pakistan lacks the tolerant
public ethos and private mediating institutions that are so important in creating
stable democratic systems.
Finally, nothing the U.S. did – provide aid, make threats, cut off aid,
impose sanctions – affected Islamabad's decision to go nuclear. Short of launching
air strikes or invading, Washington could not stop Pakistan from taking a step
which it saw as essential to its national interest in light of the decision
by its principal military rival, India, to develop nuclear weapons.
Indeed, only by threatening to begin bombing did the Bush administration
get Islamabad's attention after September 11. Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage apparently told President Musharraf: "Be
prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age." Thus
was Pakistan forced to drop Afghanistan's Taliban regime as a client and formally
enlist in the coalition against al-Qaeda. The pressure worked because Washington's
threat was credible and Pakistan was able to determine what "is" is,
in President Clinton's parlance, when it came to "cooperating" with the U.S.
Musharraf continually played upon Washington's fear of his possible overthrow
by Islamic extremists, warning that he could only go so far in accommodating
the U.S. Analysts divided over his vulnerability, but few policymakers wanted
to take a chance.
Musharraf's growing isolation – even before Bhutto's assassination, two-thirds
of Pakistanis opposed his plan to serve a second term – led the Bush administration
to push even harder on the democratic front. But the options in Pakistan's "big
man" form of politics were essentially limited to Bhutto and Sharif. Sharif
was viewed as too favorable towards Islamic fundamentalists and antagonistic
towards the U.S. Moreover, though he also was twice prime minister,
and was the elected official ousted by Musharraf, Sharif lacked a Greek Chorus
Bhutto, though both courageous and Westernized, looked little better on
any objective measure. As noted earlier, Bhutto's record didn't inspire confidence.
In two stints as prime minister she passed few pieces of important legislation,
failed to control abuses by security forces, promoted the Taliban, did little
to discourage Islamic radicalism, and was dismissed from office for corruption.
Moreover, she, no less than Sharif, represented a family and tribal politics
common to South Asia, in which her party was more a tool of personal ambition
than political philosophy or moral principle. British
author William Dalrymple called her "a feudal princess with the aristocratic
sense of entitlement that came with owning great tracts of the country and the
Western-leaning tastes that such a background tends to give." Indeed, she prevailed
in a bitter intra-family struggle for control of the Pakistan People's Party.
While she was prime minister, her younger brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, was shot
dead by the police, causing accusing fingers to point her way.
His daughter (her niece), Fatima Bhutto, complained that Benazir Bhutto's
"role in his assassination has never been adequately answered, although the
tribunal convened after his death under the leadership of three respected judges
concluded that it could not have taken place without approval from a 'much higher'
(After Benazir Bhutto's death, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, took over
control of the PPP, nominally on behalf of their 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari,
who has started calling himself Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Asif served as a cabinet
minister in his wife's second administration and earned the sobriquet "Mr. Ten
Percent" for his reported attention to the earning potential of power.)
Despite this record, Benazir Bhutto had several advantages over Sharif
– beauty, exile in Britain rather than Saudi Arabia, less apparent tolerance
for Islamic radicals, and, most important, a calculated willingness to tell
Westerners what they wanted to hear.
Former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith said of her: "She was this completely
charming, beautiful woman who could flatter the senators, and who could read
their political concerns, who could persuade them that she would much better
serve American interests" than would her opponents. As a result, she was lavished
with encomiums by Washington's policymaking and punditry elites. Indeed, a veritable
flood of journalists and analysts claiming to be her "friend" emerged after
her death, extolling her manifold virtues. One commentator even rhapsodized
about the "Asian Winston Churchill."
Thus, the Bush administration applied strong pressure on Musharraf to allow
Benazir Bhutto back into the country to contest parliamentary elections, originally
scheduled for next week. Washington sold this as a grand step forward on the
return to democracy, but Musharraf surely saw the political advantages for himself.
The proposed political condominium would provide Musharraf with parliamentary
legitimacy for his continued rule; in return, Bhutto would receive a decision-making
role as prime minister. Their dealings looked more like two oligarches dividing
the political spoils than opening up the political system.
Indeed, for this reason the negotiations cost Bhutto public support. Barely
a quarter of the population believed that she had returned for the country rather
than to satisfy her own ambitions. Most people thought deal would serve Musharraf
and Bhutto more than the average Pakistani.
The likely benefits for America were even less clear. Any accommodation
would have been uncertain and unstable, prone to collapse at the slightest challenge.
Moreover, despite Bhutto's pro-Western rhetoric, noted analyst Stanley Kurtz,
"Her supporters are poor people who haven't benefitted from the growth of Pakistan's
economy under Musharraf. They're attracted to Bhutto's socialism, not to hopes
for liberal democracy or military assaults against the Taliban." To have acted
at Washington's behest would have quickly sapped her remaining popularity.
Then came the assassination.
Now the Bush administration's plans are in ruins. The politician who was
supposed to lead the restoration of democracy is dead. Most U.S. policymakers
distrust the only other major democratic leader, Sharif. Says Peter Rodman of
the Brookings Institution: Sharif is "a wild card and not to be trusted." Sharif
returns the sentiment, asking with evident asperity: "Now that a major Pakistani
political leader has been assassinated, why is [Bush] still supporting his man"
The Musharraf government is suspected – almost certainly wrongly, but truth
is of little matter to conspiracy-minded Pakistanis – of complicity in the murder.
Moreover, even those inclined to think favorably of the president must wonder
at the behavior of government officials who denied Bhutto additional protection,
lied about the cause of her death, and impeded any effective investigation of
The assassination sparked violent riots, which in turn begat a new military
crackdown. The government also delayed the poll, triggering new protests from
the opposition. The possibility of cooperation among Musharraf; Sharif, who
was ousted by Musharraf; and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, which united
only around her, seems slight, to say the least. The likelihood of Pakistan
emerging as a stable and liberal democracy continues to fall.
But the administration still shouts advice from the sidelines. The Pakistani
people should persevere in pursuit of democracy. The country should remain calm.
The election should go ahead as planned. The election should be postponed as
proposed. And so on.
unnamed administration official told the Washington Post: "Plan
A still has to work. We all have to appeal to moderate forces to come together
and carry the election and create a more solidly based government, then use
that as a platform to fight the terrorists." Apparently fantasy drives more
than the administration's Iraq policy.
Alas, there is little evidence that the Pakistani people much care what
Washington says. Frankly, it's doubtful that Musharraf much cares either, given
how badly the administration's "Bhutto option" turned out. Anyway, how can U.S.
policymakers seriously argue that they have the slightest idea what to do to
"fix" today's mess?
Of course, reality hasn't stopped the usual suspects from concocting grand
new initiatives. Various presidential candidates have proposed that Washington
issue all sorts of demands, including that Musharraf accept an international
inquiry into Bhutto's death and even step down.
The New York Times urged the Bush administration to "fortify Pakistan's
badly battered democratic institutions." Other analysts and pundits suggest
that the U.S. government enhance its military involvement in Pakistan, increase
aid to encourage economic development, promise to remain engaged over the long-term,
intensify diplomatic efforts to improve Pakistan-Afghan relations, push for
normalization of Pakistani-Indian relations, improve Pakistani military capabilities,
and demand greater access to local intelligence.
The International Crisis Group has just published a detailed paper entitled:
"After Bhutto's Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan." Among its proposals: Musharraf
should resign, the constitution should be fully restored, and power should be
transferred into civilian hands. The ICG forgot to mention sending the tooth
fairy to visit every Pakistani child.
All these ideas sound wonderful in theory. But Washington has virtually
no practical means to achieve any of them. Just how would the U.S. "fortify"
political institutions that have been largely dismantled by the incumbent dictator
supported by Washington? Does anyone expect Musharraf to voluntarily yield power?
And who believes that a liberal democracy would result from a coup or street
riots sufficient in strength to drive him from power? Alas, the administration's
"Benazir gambit" has knocked Humpty Dumpty off the wall, and no American can
put Pakistan's political system back together again.
Indeed, there's no reason to believe that any civilian Pakistani government
would be notably more competent, less corrupt, and more willing to combat Islamic
extremism than past civilian regimes, let alone more likely to survive. The
building blocks for liberal democracy remain absent: the population is 60 percent
illiterate; the civic ethos is one of conflict rather than cooperation; broad-based
community groups and institutions are largely nonexistent; family and tribal
identities transcend other loyalties; the army and Inter-Services Intelligence
agency (Pakistan's CIA) have long dominated Pakistani life.
Under such circumstances the best strategy for the U.S. government would
be to put distance between itself and the authorities in Islamabad. Cooperation
would still be necessary to deal with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. A continuing
dialogue over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons would remain worthwhile.
And America's bully pulpit should be used to broadly affirm the ideals of a
liberal society: the responsibility of governments everywhere to respect the
lives and dignity of their peoples, and to be accountable to them.
But no more attempting to micro manage Pakistani political affairs. No
more trying to dictate political actors and outcomes. No more supporting or
undermining the government. No more taking sides among contending parties. No
more pronouncing judgment on every permutation of Pakistani politics. No more
seeking to buy political allegiance with more "aid."
In contrast, Americans – and others around the world – could do much more
by supporting private organizations that go around the Islamabad regime to support
local development projects and build relationships with community and tribal
leaders. The vast majority of Pakistanis disdain the U.S. government. The answer
is not better State Department propaganda, but less meddling by Washington policymakers
and greater involvement by private Americans actually interested in Pakistanis
Social engineering doesn't work in America. Attempting to reorder the globe
is an even greater fantasy. Decades of plans and programs designed to remake
Pakistan have come to naught. The failure of Washington's latest strategy, based
on the return of Benazir Bhutto, was not surprising, just more disastrous than
usual. It's time U.S. policymakers learned a lesson from their manifold mistakes
and said no more.