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Our Man in Pakistan

Author: Mahnaz Ispahani, Former Senior Fellow for South and West Asia
March 3, 2006
Wall Street Journal


President Bush arrives today in Pakistan, one of the world’s most anti-American places. He was given a bloody welcome: a suicide bomb attack in Karachi on Thursday, which killed an American foreign service officer and three others; on Wednesday an army action in Waziristan that reportedly killed 45 militants. The contrast with his nonviolent welcome in India is stark. The trip to India was a gamble—Mr. Bush staked its success on a signed agreement with Manmohan Singh’s government on civil nuclear energy cooperation. He got it. Mr. Bush arrives in Pakistan with one primary goal: showing support for President Pervez Musharraf. More than four years after Pakistan’s historic abandonment of the Taliban in Kabul, this, too, is starting to seem like a high-stakes gamble whose outcome is not clear.

This trip follows that of President Clinton’s to Islamabad in March 2000, and Mr. Bush’s visit will go some way toward erasing Gen. Musharraf’s humiliating memories of the last time around. Following a rousing address to the Indian Parliament, Mr. Clinton flew into pariah Pakistan for five hours, met Gen. Musharraf privately, and then went on live Pakistani TV to publicly chastise his host, warning him against trying to “redraw borders with blood.”

Mr. Clinton also called nuclear-armed South Asia “the most dangerous place in the world.” He recognized that Pakistan was a strategically relevant country with whose leadership business must be done. This is even more so the case today. The Clinton team stressed, however, that in no way should his visit be construed as a validation of Gen. Musharraf’s coup—the return to democracy was a top priority. When Mr. Bush meets the press in Pakistan on Saturday, as he is scheduled to do alongside Gen. Musharraf, his public message will be the opposite of Mr. Clinton’s: Pakistan’s president and chief of army staff is his “friend,” his buddy, a “man of courage,” one who has a tough job and has survived several assassination attempts. And Pakistan is a “key ally,” a partner in the war on terror. Congress agrees. Yearly, it grants Mr. Bush authority to waive coup-related sanctions against Pakistan. Between 2002 and 2005, Pakistan has received $2.63 billion in direct assistance, with several billion more as reimbursement for Pakistani support of American counterterrorism operations.

Both presidents know there are now some strains in Pakistan-U.S. relations. Frontier security cooperation is one top concern. Despite 70,000 Pakistani troops deployed along the 1,500-mile frontier region, Osama bin Laden and his aides are nowhere to be found (although they are quite social), and activist Taliban are seemingly everywhere, secure in the support of tribal brethren and even members of provincial government. The U.S. air strikes in Bajaur last January fuelled speculation that the Bush administration was hoping to accomplish directly what Pakistani soldiers, despite significant loss of life, could not. On his first stop in Kabul, Mr. Bush also must have heard an earful of complaints from President Hamid Karzai about the infiltration from Pakistan of Taliban and Islamist extremist suicide squads. Since 2003, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have complained, too. Unlike Mr. Clinton’s approach, however, such specific concerns will not be aired publicly.


Mr. Bush’s visit is designed to help Gen. Musharraf. Governing Pakistan is his almost unenviable task today, and one which he is managing less well. Pakistan is highly unstable at home, while relations with India and Afghanistan have become stickier. Besides the steady survival of terrorists in Pakistan, a complex insurrection is gaining strength in the impoverished, resource-rich and strategic province of Baluchistan, with frequent acts of sabotage and attacks on army cantonments. Gen. Musharraf has accused both Afghanistan and India of worsening the situation. Islamist jihadi and extremist groups continue to fan sectarian and regional violence. And the Danish cartoon controversy has added fuel to the fires. Having nothing to do with either Gen. Musharraf or the U.S., demonstrations against blasphemy have been turned into violent anti-Bush, anti-Musharraf tirades.

These two leaders are locked in a deep, tactical embrace. Yet before leaving Washington for Pakistan, Mr. Bush also said that the U.S. wants “a broad and lasting strategic partnership with the people of Pakistan.” He assured Pakistanis that the U.S. cares for them beyond the war on terror. On his trip, he will likely address some of what Pakistanis want to hear—bilateral trade and investment, and encouragement for Pakistan and India to sort out their feud over Kashmir. There is more rhetoric than reality here. Mr. Bush is in no rush to change the standing U.S. policy opposing a mediator role in Kashmir.

He may even say something more about the merits of a free and fair national election scheduled for 2007. Mr. Bush highlighted this in a pre-trip speech to the Asia Society on Feb. 22. Given his 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. Islamist parties have won national power here only in alliance with the army’s supporters, and when faced with decapitated, leaderless national political parties. In this post-Hamas-victory era, however, these Pakistanis are finding it even harder to get a hearing.

When he arrives in Pakistan tonight, any remarks of Mr. Bush on democratization will be carefully parsed. Mr. Bush sees democratization in Pakistan as emerging through Gen. Musharraf’s policies, while many of his opponents and civil society groups see those policies as being the main impediment to a genuine democratic process. Mr. Bush has made much recently of Pakistan’s free press, but then some Pakistanis ask, should he not also refer to its ineffectual parliament, its hamstrung judiciary, corrupt police, the punitive Islamic Hudood laws—and its irregular elections under Gen. Musharraf?

Besides an announced public diplomacy event—where Mr. Bush may rightly bask in the prompt and generous American response to the devastating Oct. 8 earthquake—we have not had any advance news of specific meetings between Mr. Bush and leaders of civil society groups, political parties, the new generation of business people, parliamentarians, women’s groups, educators or students. Yet these nonmilitary institutions and leaders might get a hearing, too.

It would be a welcome shift in U.S. policy if Mr. Bush’s support for Gen. Musharraf was visibly coupled with support for the strengthening of other Pakistani institutions. (He might start with tripling the amount of American dollars—$66 million—devoted to education reform in Pakistan.) In contrast to the U.S. relationship with India, there are no guarantees that the ties between the U.S. and Pakistan have intrinsic, long-term ballast. A more nuanced policy, that includes deeper contacts with a broader Pakistani leadership, may be the best hope for sustaining a perennially troubled relationship with a country from which the U.S. cannot disengage.

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