On Friday, as the situation in Pakistan became increasingly unsettled and dangerous, the Bush Administration dispatched Ambassador John Negroponte to Islamabad, ostensibly to articulate our position on the whole mess. But other than wishing the problems in Pakistan would just go away, it’s not entirely clear what the position of the United States is in that country.
Pakistan has been in trouble for a long time and the current turmoil is merely the most recent manifestation of the turbulent nature of the place. Ethnically heterogeneous and geographically difficult to control, the country has relied on its military establishment to keep things from falling apart, but the army’s reach does not extend to the western frontier region, home to separatists and terrorists.
For six years, the United States has been exhorting General Pervez Musharraf to move decisively into the area that borders Afghanistan, but he has been singularly unsuccessful in ridding the region of terrorists. Unfamiliar with either the terrain or the fervently Islamic Pashtun people there, and fearful of the enemy’s demonstrated skill, the Pakistani army has had no success in controlling either the terrain or the population, and the northwest frontier remains a threat to both Afghanistan and Musharraf. Perceiving real threats to Pakistan’s tenuous stability, Musharraf cracked down, but his decisiveness has not played very well in the media.
Stability, and probably long-term security, have actually been eroded by Musharraf’s insistence on running the both the country and the army; by firing the chief justice of the Supreme Court; by postponing elections; and by suspending the constitution. Outraged by all this, lawyers in suits and ties took to the streets and battled police, producing what looked like a middle-class uprising. The images of nattily dressed, mainstream citizens being beaten and wrestled to the ground by police have not contributed to an improvement in Musharraf’s worldwide esteem and have produced consternation in the White House.
As if that weren’t ugly enough, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who a few weeks ago looked like she would participate with Musharraf in some sort of power-sharing arrangement, is wily enough to spot an opportunity and is now a vocal opponent of the general. She recently announced that she wanted to rid the nation of one-man rule and was enlisting the support of opposition politicians, including the leaders of fringe parties and, troublingly, Islamists. Absent the inherent danger in this nasty business, this is amusingly ironic, since Bhutto is a thoroughly disreputable and discredited figure whose interests evidently lie in enriching herself rather than bringing democracy to her country.
And what is Washington going to do? There have been leaks from the White House that it is losing hope that Musharraf’s government will survive, but such disclosures are not helpful to our principal objective of maintaining Pakistan as an ally against Islamic revolutionism. Most likely, Negroponte is going to tell Musharraf that we want him to reinstate constitutional primacy and hold elections immediately. Our leverage, of course, is the billions of dollars in assistance we give Pakistan in the war against extremists, but it’s leverage with questionable credibility. Does Gen. Musharraf think we will stop aid when he is the staunchest Muslim ally of the United States? Probably not.
So the situation is not likely to become less volatile any time soon. Meanwhile, to allay our fears about an unstable Pakistan with an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the general has stated repeatedly that we should not worry, since the Pakistani army has complete control of all nuclear weapons. Coming from the leader of a country that exported nuclear technology to our enemies, this is not very reassuring.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.