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Musharraf’s Taliban Problem

Author: Lionel Beehner
Updated: September 11, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Pakistan is seen as a strategic ally of the United States in its efforts to rid the region of Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists. But Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has come under criticism in the West and Kabul for not doing enough to secure its border with Afghanistan, rein in Islamic extremists who use Pakistan as a safe haven, and curb the influence of the country’s military and intelligence services. Musharraf is expected to sweep presidential elections next year, but his long-term grip on power looks far from certain. His recent rollback of democracy, the killing of a popular Baluch leader, and an uneasy truce with Taliban militants raise questions about the Pakistani leader’s priorities as well as his utility to U.S. interests in the region.

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How has Pakistan contributed to counterterrorism efforts since 9/11?

President Musharraf’s regime has received more than $3 billion in U.S. aid since September 11, 2001, as well as $900 million in military aid and debt forgiveness. In exchange, Pakistan claims it has killed or captured hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, including the March 2003 arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. “Pakistan has picked up more Qaeda [members] and been more instrumental in killing insurgents than any other ally in the war on terror,” says David Smith, a former U.S. Army attaché twice assigned to Islamabad. “Musharraf has done a lot for us, at a great danger to himself and his political position in Pakistan.” Between 70,000 and 80,000 Pakistani troops patrol the porous 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan. Yet U.S. officials believe al-Qaeda’s top two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are stationed in this frontier region, which shows the Pakistani government’s lax control over the border.

What is the status of Afghan-Pakistan relations?

Strained, experts say. Pakistan severed ties with the Taliban four years back but has had chilly relations with the Karzai government since, partly because of its close ties with India. “[Pakistan worries] the Indians are somehow developing a foothold in Afghanistan where they can threaten Pakistan,” says Robert Oakley, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 1988 to 1992. Karzai is seen as overly sympathetic toward India, according to Pakistani officials. Family members of Karzai’s first cabinet were largely educated in India, while many have second homes there, says Christine Fair, senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Crisis Guide: Pakistan Pakistan has long considered Afghanistan to be within its regional sphere of influence. There are some 28 million ethnic Pashtun in Pakistan, mostly in the west, who share close cultural, historical, and linguistic ties with Afghan Pashtuns across the border (who number roughly 12 million, comprising 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population). Yet bilateral relations took a turn for the worse after Karzai, himself an ethnic Pashtun, visited Islamabad in February and presented the Pakistani president a list of Taliban leaders offered safe haven in Pakistan. The following month, Musharraf lashed out against the “bad-mouthing” of Pakistan by India. He accused Delhi of spreading false information to Kabul that Pakistani intelligence was abetting terrorists in southern Afghanistan.

Is Musharraf doing enough to rein in Taliban militants?

Experts say he could do more. "[T]he key to the resurgent Taliban can be summarized in one word: Pakistan," writes Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation in the Washington Post. "[N]ot one senior Taliban leader has been arrested or killed in Pakistan since 2001." Moreover, Pakistani forces in the predominantly Pashtun north do little to disrupt the cross-border flow of Taliban insurgents, clamp down on the cross-border drug trade, and rein in the most radical madrassas, or Islamic holy schools, in the region. “He can’t afford to alienate important parts of the population like Pashtuns,” Oakley says, many of whom openly support the Taliban and are hostile to U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

Pakistan also worries about Afghanistan’s orientation toward India. “Musharraf sees the Taliban as a pro-Pakistan counterweight to Indian influence in Afghanistan and wants to keep it strong in case Afghan President Hamid Karzai is overthrown and Afghanistan collapses into chaos,” writes Selig S. Harrison of the Center for International Policy in the Los Angeles Times. Musharraf is also hamstrung by a political pact he made with several pro-Taliban Islamist parties in 2004 to secure victory in state elections along the border.

But others say an Afghanistan rid of Taliban influence is in Pakistan’s vital interest and that Islamabad is limited in its ability to stabilize its border regions. “We are doing our best,” Shaukat Aziz, prime minister of Pakistan, told CFR earlier this year. “Securing this long and porous border is an onerous task and a shared responsibility. One side alone cannot be solely responsible.” Smith likens securing the border to patrolling the Rocky Mountain range from Canada to Mexico. By comparison, he adds, the Line of Control that divides Kashmir, roughly one-third the length of the Afghan-Pakistani border, is patrolled by 400,000 Indian troops. Smith also says that Pakistani security forces are also not fully organized or equipped for counterinsurgency operations; for example, Pakistan has only fifty operational helicopters.

How is Musharraf rated on governance?

Experts say he has failed to demilitarize Pakistan, improve its economy, or promote democratic freedoms. According to the New York Times, the president is beholden to the Pakistani army, “the only constituency that… [he] ever really cares about.” Musharraf, who is president of Pakistan as well as chief of the army, has installed hundreds of military officials in important government posts, establishing what USIP’s Fair calls a “general-ocracy.” Some U.S. officials are pressuring Musharraf to strip himself of his military uniform, as the Pakistani constitution stipulates, before running for president next year.

The economy is another strike against Musharraf, experts say. Despite 8 percent annual growth in its gross domestic product (GDP), Pakistan continues to struggle economically, particularly its under-classes. “Poverty relief is a joke,” says Fair, who disputes the GDP figures. “Everyone cooks these books. They’re soup, not books.” Finally, Musharraf has rolled back democratic reforms, blocked efforts by opposition candidates, including two exiled former prime ministers, to challenge his rule, and pandered to religious extremists. “Politics [in Pakistan] has become suffused with cant, hypocrisy, and fraud,” according to a July 2005 USIP Special Report, while Freedom House’s 2006 Freedom in the World report considers Pakistan “not free” and gives it failing marks on both civil liberties and political rights.

What is Musharraf doing to secure Pakistan’s wayward provinces?

The areas of Waziristan and Baluchistan, both of which contain independence-minded tribal groups, pose the most serious challenge to Musharraf’s rule, experts say. Waziristan is a mountainous region whose 700,000 tribal people are sympathetic to Taliban and hostile to Musharraf for his collusion with U.S. forces across the border. Musharraf recently reached a peace accord with Islamic militants in northern Waziristan who pledged to cease attacks against government installations in exchange for security guarantees. Some Western officials worry the truce may provide al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who is suspected of residing in the province, safe haven.

In Baluchistan, a resource-rich but cash-strapped province in southwestern Pakistan, the Pakistani government had been less assertive until recently. On August 26, Pakistani security forces launched a strike that killed Baluch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, ostensibly to head off secessionist efforts in the province. “They really mucked it up and made him into a martyr,” former Ambassador Oakley says. The assassination against the popular resistance leader prompted protests and criticisms from afar. “Musharraf’s actions have reversed decades’ worth of slow progress toward national integration,” writes Frederic Grare, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Foreign Policy Online. “In one deft stroke, [he] has made himself an ally no longer worth the effort.” Other experts say to bring stability to Baluchistan may require a redeployment of Pakistani forces away from the Afghan border.

How secure is Musharraf’s political future?

Although he has survived several assassination attempts, experts say Musharraf’s political future looks relatively secure ahead of next year’s presidential elections. His political fortunes are tied to the Pakistani military and its intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “One can’t underestimate the ability of the ISI to dictate Pakistan’s electoral outcomes,” Fair says. Carnegie’s Grare says the military purposely overplays the threat posed by radical Islam. “No Islamic organization has ever been in a position to politically or militarily challenge the role of the one and only center of power in Pakistan: the army,” he writes in a February 2006 Carnegie Policy Brief. In the 2002 parliamentary elections, Islamist parties received 11 percent of the vote. Their victory “enabled the Musharraf regime to point to the mullahs and tell the United States, in effect, ‘If you don’t listen to me and give me what I need, the mullahs will take over. And if you push me too hard to change, I will be thrown out; and then you will be sorry,’” Grare writes.

How strong is the opposition in Pakistan?

Elections so far in the Musharraf era—at the national and local levels—have been largely rigged by the military, experts say. Yet a six-party coalition of Islamist and anti-U.S. parties, the Mutahida Majlis Amal (MMA), has fared far better than expected in the past, particularly in Baluchistan and in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), receiving 11 percent of the nationwide vote in 2002. Carnegie’s Grare dismisses the significance of the MMA’s apparent surge in popularity because the Pakistani military, in effect, is in control of the country’s Islamist movement. The MMA, he writes, is “used by the regime as a vessel to receive and channel popular dissatisfaction.” Whenever the MMA does not serve the military’s purpose, the government can simply disqualify Islamist candidates with madrasa degrees, as it did during last year’s elections. The result is what Olivier Roy, an expert on Islam at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, calls “Islamo-nationalism”: religious ideals combined with promotion of the Pakistani state.

Meanwhile, the two mainstream opposition parties—the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N)—hope their exiled leaders—former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto (1988-1990) and Nawaz Sharif (1990-1993), who have formed an electoral alliance—will be permitted to challenge Musharraf. The PPP received 25 percent of the vote in 2002, compared to 24.8 percent for the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), a pro-Musharraf party.

How strong is U.S. support for Musharraf?

U.S.-Pakistan relations have undergone recent strains, largely due to Washington’s unwillingness to grant Pakistan a nuclear agreement similar to the one it offered India (because of deep concerns about the A.Q. Khan network, among other things) as well as Pakistan’s inability to rein in Taliban insurgents along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Still, President Bush continues to publicly back Musharraf and supply him with military assistance and F-16 fighter jets. “The dilemma the administration faces is ‘What do you do without making the situation worse?’” Oakley says. Many U.S. officials say despite Musharraf’s faults, the alternatives to him may be more dangerous; hence the White House’s reticence on democracy promotion in Pakistan, critics say (President Bush did tell reporters in March that Pakistan ''still has some distance to travel on the road to democracy.”).

Yet U.S. policy toward Pakistan has created an anti-U.S. backlash of sorts, among both Taliban sympathizers as well as pro-democracy types. Given [Bush’s] promotion of freedom and democracy across the Muslim world, some Pakistanis have asked why their country, which has no history of bringing Islamists to power through genuine elections, should be the glaring exception to U.S. policy,” writes Mahnaz Ispahani, former CFR adjunct senior fellow for South and West Asia, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. On an April 2006 visit to Pakistan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said the United States supports civilian rule in Pakistan as well as civilian control of the country’s military but dodged the issue of whether Washington would recognize Musharraf if he refused to doff his military uniform after next year’s elections.

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