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Should the United States Continue Supporting Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf?

Discussants: Hassan Abbas, Fellow, Asia Society; Senior Advisor, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and Moeed Yusuf
Updated: October 5, 2007

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The United States draws frequent criticism for supporting a military ruler in Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf. As Musharraf's popularity has suffered in recent months, and as violence and religious extremism have increased, these criticisms have grown steadily louder. Pakistan's October 6 presidential elections present a crossroads, with the possibilities of genuine democratic reform or continued military dominance both in sight. The question of U.S. support for Musharraf remains of utmost importance, particularly given anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. The perception of Musharraf's closeness to Washington could harm both his credibility and U.S. efforts to root out militants in the region.

Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Moeed Yusuf, director of strategic studies at the Islamabad-based think tank Strategic and Economic Policy Research, discuss whether United States should continue its support of President Musharraf.

Weigh in on this debate by emailing the editors at letters@cfr.org. To view other online debates click here.


Moeed YusufMost Recent

October 5, 2007

Moeed Yusuf

Hassan’s argument conflates personalities with institutions. I am not arguing that Musharraf’s survival is essential for Pakistan. If Musharraf has not delivered for Pakistan, he must go. But that is a choice that should be left entirely to Pakistanis. More importantly, Musharraf’s removal from office has nothing to do with the role of the military per se. The military as an institution will remain the chief arbitrator on issues of foreign policy and national security unless an internal civil-military power-sharing arrangement is worked out.

Hassan is correct in observing that military rulers have tried to present themselves as Pakistan’s last hope. But the civilian leaders have done so as well. There is no need to go too far back—just see what Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been saying for the past year both publically and during her lobbying efforts in Washington: “Bring me back or Pakistan will be Talibanized!”

This is precisely my point—everything need not be viewed through an anti-military lens. Here the problem is not the military, it is that every Pakistani leader has deliberately encouraged the United States to develop a stake in the country’s political discourse and support individuals rather than institutions.

Specifically on the counterinsurgency, while I agree that the military operation is completely misconceived, if I buy the argument that “politically representative” governments (this term is alien to Pakistani politics since all military and civilian regimes have been elitist in reality) can bring FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] into the mainstream, I must ask what stopped them from doing so during the more than twenty-five years they were in power? If Hassan hastens to suggest that the military’s interests did not allow them such freedom, then he must also acknowledge that nothing is different today.

Let all in Pakistan—and this goes for leaders as well as analysts—stop promoting the need for the United States to weigh in on Pakistan’s future. The United States will do whatever is in its interest; at times it may complement Pakistan’s interests but at others (like at present) it will not. It is absurd to suggest that U.S. support for a particular actor will improve—let alone solve—Pakistan’s structural civil-military problems. This is a task Pakistanis must perform internally. Rather than trying to convince Washington to oust a particular ruler, the need is to develop a system which filters the likes of Musharraf and corrupt civilians before they reach the top. The problem is not the individuals who rule, it is the weakness of institutions.

If a civilian ruler returns to power today, Pakistan will be no closer to perpetuating democratic rule unless civil-military reconciliation is ensured in the immediate term. And no external power can help Pakistan achieve that. Democracy is needed urgently but it cannot be achieved by employing the normative approach that Hassan and others concurring with his view promote.


Hassan AbbasOctober 4, 2007

Hassan Abbas

Unlike Moeed, I don’t think that democracy in Pakistan would amount to adding another “layer of interlocutors” between the United States and Pakistan. In pursuance of fighting extremism, which is only one of the important common interests, democratic Pakistan is likely to be a reliable and long-term partner of the United States.

General Pervez Musharraf “can’t fool all the people, all the time” by claiming that “after me, the deluge.” He artfully projects that he alone stands between Pakistan and a mullah takeover of the state. This pattern of manipulation is not new to Pakistan. General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator in the 1960s, earned U.S. support by claiming that he was an obstacle to the communist expansionist designs in the region. General Zia [ul-Haq]—another military ruler that Pakistan had to contend with—converted the Afghan freedom fight into international Jihad (aided and abetted by the CIA and Saudi Arabia) during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Ayub’s rule led to the break up of Pakistan, and Zia’s policies brought upon us the modern face of religious extremism among Muslims in Central and South Asia. Also, strangely, Musharraf framed his overall policy as “Enlightened Moderation”—an English language phrase which is not even easily translated into local languages in Pakistan!

Musharraf idealized [Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the army general who created the modern Turkish Republic] but didn’t read history books. For instance, just see the profiles of his top political allies. Shujaat Hussain, president of Pakistan Muslim League(Q), the “king’s party” created by the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency], is on record having said that “our hearts are with Osama and brains with Musharraf!”

On issues related to terrorism, I think the Taliban insurgency in FATA can still be tackled by implementing some standard counterinsurgency procedures which experts believe are a combination of 20 percent military action and 80 percent political measures. Musharraf has time and again proved that he is incapable of introducing political reform in FATA (as well in the rest of the country). Only credibly elected representatives can effectively reach out to the people in the area and counter terror. As Vali Nasr aptly argues, electoral politics in Muslim states will likely bring even right wing parties towards the strategic centre so that they can appeal to a broad section of voters and get a chance to form governments.

In view of these factors, I think it is a very realistic expectation that United States will seriously reevaluate its war on terror-driven policies including support to Musharraf. Future of a state, with poor nuclear proliferation record, is at stake.


Moeed YusufOctober 3, 2007

Moeed Yusuf

There is a need to refocus this debate in light of the question at hand. I am amused to see Hassan hedging his bets by stating: “the real problem is the blind U.S. support for Musharraf and reluctance to even softly criticize his blunders.” If that is the only concern, then I would completely agree with him. The United States must judiciously criticize Musharraf for his increasing heavy-handedness against the political and civil opposition. But this does not require the United States to withdraw support for Musharraf, the premise Hassan initially began with.

Hassan does however contradict his above remark by returning to the normative discourse. Implicit in his response is the contention that the United States ought to support civilians to undercut the military since such a development will be in Pakistan’s interest. Although I would still argue that it is not the United States but the Pakistanis themselves that will ultimately have to undercut the military, I will leave that discussion for another day. Here, I question whether it is realistic to expect the United States to act on Hassan’s suggestion if such a move carries with it the potential of undermining Washington’s current focus in Pakistan, i.e. terrorism.

Now Hassan has, of course, contested—rather strangely for someone who has studied the tribal belt deeply and understands its complexities—that mainstream political parties would have managed to subdue the opposition in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] through political negotiations. I shall let that stand since it is a redundant claim. Note Hassan’s extremely careful choice of words to make this point; the past tense suggests his realization that no political outfit can alter the scenario under the current circumstances. Since we are discussing the present, even if he is right, the situation in 2002 is no longer relevant.

Today, Washington has every reason to doubt the civilian enclave’s ability to improve Pakistan’s performance on the terrorism front. No one can contend the fact that the Pakistan army will continue to dictate the FATA policy with or without Musharraf. Why then would the United States insist on a change that would create another layer of interlocutors—the civilian leadership—in dealing with Pakistan? I would submit that under the current circumstances it is utopian to expect the United States to disregard its compulsions in the war on terror and seek to support civilian rule in Pakistan. And as for U.S. public support for free and fair elections in Pakistan, there is enough evidence from across the globe—Palestine, Algeria, Turkey being pertinent examples—to suggest that while the United States’ normative stance forces it to make such statements, these are hollow claims that only take effect if Washington deems an election to be in its interest.


Hassan AbbasOctober 2, 2007

Hassan Abbas

I think the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations testifies that the United States has enjoyed significant influence in the power corridors of Pakistan, though this influence is on the wane for sure. I agree with Moeed that United States should not attempt to engineer a political change in Pakistan because that, in my view, can be counter-productive. For instance, the rumors of U.S. pressure on Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto to join hands has been damaging for Benazir. However, the real problem is the blind U.S. support for Musharraf and reluctance to even softly criticize his blunders.

Second, Moeed is absolutely correct when he asserts that election by itself is no magic wand. But that assertion is often made in reference to U.S. efforts to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq. Pakistan is a very different case. It emerged in 1947 as a democracy. The most popular Pakistani leaders have been the ones elected by its people—Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Benazir Bhutto. Under the current circumstances, free, fair, and transparent elections will strongly push Pakistan towards democracy. In fact, the U.S. State Department has been consistently saying that they expect so and have funded the Pakistan Election Commission which I deem as a good beginning.

Indeed, civil-military relations in Pakistan are its internal matter. I am not arguing that the United States should go out of its way to support democratic institutions but the least it can do is to balance the relationship. Rather than hugely investing in Pakistan’s armed forces, invest in development—especially health and education. U.S. arms sales to Pakistan primarily strengthen Musharraf as his constituency (i.e. armed forces) becomes the beneficiary. Today, an empowered judiciary, a robust media, and active civil society groups are changing the political scenario and power balance is shifting towards civilian rule.

On Moeed’s last point about the link between violence in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the type of regime in Pakistan, I respectfully but strongly disagree. Dictatorial and authoritarian regimes tend to invite violent backlash as citizens have limited options to express their views. Yes, various political, social, and religious dynamics are at play when it comes to insurgency and growing Talibanization in FATA, but in my view General Musharraf’s dependence on the military option alone also seriously complicated the crisis. Many civilians and non-combatants were killed in FATA during ground and air operations. Also, rather than cutting deals with a select few militant leaders, engaging ordinary people of FATA was needed and mainstream political parties could have delivered on this count. For instance, Asfandyar Wali’s Awami National Party (ANP) could have played such a role.


Moeed YusufOctober 1, 2007

Moeed Yusuf

Any discussion of U.S. support for a ruler in Pakistan implies that the United States holds the key to political changes in Pakistan. This argument exaggerates U.S. influence. The United States can certainly weigh in, but the ultimate change is a function of internal political currents. From the United States point of view (also in Pakistan's best interest), the only viable option is to work with whoever is at the helm of affairs without attempting to engineer a change.

Those propounding the normative argument of democracy continue—perhaps deliberately—to portray that an election will act as a magic wand and bring permanence of democracy in the country. Wishing for democracy (as all of us do) and instituting it are two separate issues. Pakistan civil-military anomalies are structural in nature which will now allow civilian supremacy unless a civil-military truce is achieved on the political front. What is required are stronger institutions, and those can only come about if the civilian political enclave is united and bargains from a position of strength. That is the only way to create an explicit 'space-sharing' formula in which the military is reassured that its national security vision will be accommodated and the civilians will have space to work towards institutional strengthening. By trying to force out the military—the status quo power—we will end up within the vicious alternation cycle between civilian and military rule. And remember, this entire process has to be internal; the United States can hardly influence the outcome of this process. More importantly, it should not, both for its own as well as Pakistan's sake.

Let me also make a point regarding the immediate U.S. interest: terrorism. Those arguing that Musharraf has been unable to tame the extremists erroneously perceive that the violence in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] is an outcome of the type of regime in place and that a democratic leader could perform better. First, extremist backlash is a function of the strength of the ‘enemy’ and the state’s inability to step up the military campaign given the strong opposition among Pakistanis against such a move. No civilian leader will order a ruthless military operation in the face of popular resentment. And even if such a counter-productive decision was taken (this risks a social implosion within Pakistan), given Pakistan’s lopsided civil-military equation, would s(he) be able to convince the military to do so under a scenario where the military is already irked by the humiliating losses in FATA and is reluctant to put down its own citizens? Leaders of both mainstream parties, thePPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] and PML (N) [Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)], have constantly complained that the military never allowed autonomy during their tenures in office. Why would it now?


Hassan AbbasOctober 1, 2007

Hassan Abbas

Many Americans often wonder why U.S. foreign policy is deemed highly controversial in the Muslim world at large. Some Western analysts frame it as “why they hate us,” while others argue that there is some inherent discrepancy between Islam and democracy limiting U.S. options. These views ignore that U.S. support for and cordial relationship with military rulers and authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world is a negative mark for the United States in the eyes of their peoples.

I acknowledge that the democratic leaders (who ran Pakistan for twenty-eight years) couldn’t govern it effectively, but their performance was better than that of military dictators (who ruled for thirty-two years). For instance, Pakistan fought all the major wars with India (1965, 1971, 1999) under military rulers. Also, there is a widespread feeling in Pakistan that the United States is always supportive of military dictatorships is Pakistan.

Since the tragic events of 9/11, Musharraf took bold and important decisions vis-ŗ-vis supporting U.S. forces against Taliban, initiating a much needed peace process with India, and challenging local religious extremists. However, after eight years as head of the state (with immense powers), what can Musharraf show today in terms of his overall performance? Taliban forces are resurgent in Afghanistan, tribal belt [on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border] is on fire, some Kashmir-focused militant groups are alive and kicking despite bans, insecurity and violence is on the rise (e.g, thirty-seven suicide attacks so far in 2007), and political instability defines the country’s landscape today. Consequently, anti-Musharraf and anti-army feelings are popular in the state and by extension perceptions about the United States are increasingly negative (to put it conservatively).

The people of Pakistan in recent months, however, have amply shown that they stand for rule of law and democracy. Huge public participation in recent pro-judiciary rallies is enough evidence of that. So the question is why U.S. foreign policy only revolves around one man in Pakistan? Why are we afraid to trust mainstream democratic forces? We must remember that Pakistan was the first Muslim state to elect a woman as prime minister (1988 and then again in 1993) and religious parties couldn’t win more than 13 percent of the vote bank in any national election.

Delay in transparent transition to democracy will potentially empower religious conservative parties. To win the ‘battle of ideas’ in Pakistan, it is high time for the United States to stop supporting a military ruler.

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