A growing chorus of voices is raising doubts about Washington’s partnership with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, the general who took power by overthrowing a civilian government in 1999, and who, by his own admission, came only reluctantly to support the U.S.-led war on terrorism. These skeptics suggest that the time has come for President George W. Bush to “depersonalize” America’s relationship with Pakistan.
Frustration is understandable. Washington has already provided Pakistan with at least $10 billion in military and civilian funding since 9/11. Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requested another $785 million for 2008. Despite generous financing, U.S. intelligence officials believe that Qaeda and Taliban leaders still find sanctuary in Pakistan’s “wild west” tribal belt.
Recent street protests in Lahore and Karachi, sparked by Musharraf’s clumsy effort to dismiss Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on questionable charges of nepotism and corruption, limit his appeal still further. By picking a fight with the judiciary and bar associations, Musharraf’s oft-repeated claims of support for “enlightened moderation” ring hollow. Official harassment of Pakistan’s media only compounds the problem.
At one level, the skeptics are right. Too many Pakistanis see Washington as a fair-weather friend, ready to dump Islamabad as soon as Al Qaeda and the Taliban are dismantled. By broadening its ties, the United States can better convince a range of Pakistanis that it shares similar goals and that America can be a reliable partner over the long run.
But depersonalizing the relationship is no panacea. Washington should not rely on Musharraf alone, but it cannot assume that his departure would advance America’s main goals of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. In order to achieve long-term success, Washington needs to build trust with the Pakistan Army as it works to expand the capacity of civilian institutions.
Musharraf is in fact less consequential than his most passionate admirers or critics would have us believe. Contrary to the nightmare visions of a jihadi takeover, a Pakistan without Musharraf would probably look a lot like the status quo. Another military leader would hold direct or indirect political power in league with a shifting cast of political parties.
Under the rosiest plausible scenarios, the progressive political parties would have more room for maneuver, and the army would pursue its interests by supporting their moderate agenda. More likely, the army and civilians would expend more energy protecting their own interests than addressing the enormous challenges Pakistan faces: extremism, poverty, and ethnic and sectarian strife.
In the worst case, a new army leader would find common cause with even more retrograde parties than those Musharraf has already brought into his fold. This new regime would be even less willing to assist Washington in the war on terrorism or in building a modern state.
The theme common to all of these scenarios is the central role of the army, Pakistan’s strongest and most deeply entrenched institution. The military has rarely had a healthy working relationship with the country’s civilian political elite. Even during the 1990s, a period of nominal democratic rule, the army called the shots on major foreign and defense policy decisions.
Musharraf is but the latest embodiment of this diseased civil-military relationship. We gain little by agonizing over his fate; in itself, his removal will not create effective civilian leadership or institutions, nor will it quickly extricate the army from domestic politics.
Nor will we gain much by vilifying Pakistan’s army. Yes, the security and intelligence services should leave politics to civilians. But for the foreseeable future, these same organizations will remain the only instruments available for fighting terrorists and manning the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. If we Americans want them to do a better job, Washington and Islamabad must enhance cooperation at every level and seek opportunities to integrate operations in ways that build trust. Rather than greater public criticism or sanctions, the United States should draw Pakistan’s army and intelligence services into a warm but tight and coercive embrace.
The skeptics are right that the United States should use its diplomatic leverage to support Pakistan’s constitutional mechanisms: electoral, judicial and institutional. Free and fair national elections monitored by international observers would produce a parliament with greater popular legitimacy, marking a significant step in Pakistan’s democratic transition even if Musharraf retains the presidency. Transparent legal proceedings in the conduct of the government’s case against the chief justice, without intimidation or harassment of justices, witnesses or media, would do more to advance the independence of the judiciary than any conceivable opposition protest. And a post-election timetable for power sharing between civilian leaders and the army could pave the way for a democratic transition more sustainable than any Pakistan has seen to date.
Depersonalizing America’s relationship with Pakistan makes good sense, but only if Washington devotes more attention to building a broad-based bilateral relationship and stronger Pakistani institutions capable of outlasting any single leader, whether he sits in Islamabad or in Washington.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.