Mahnaz Ispahani, the Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow on South and West Asia and co-executive director of a Council-Asia Society Independent Task Force on India and South Asia, says that the June 24 visit to Camp David by President Pervez Musharraf was important for the symbolism of U.S. support for Pakistan, as well as for the $3 billion in aid given by President Bush.
But Ispahani, who specializes in Pakistan, says that continuing differences over Pakistan’s alleged aid to North Korea’s nuclear program and over Kashmir raise questions about the warmth of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. She says that Pakistan will help the United States try to track down al-Qaeda members and will cooperate in Afghanistan. But she says the other issues make Pakistan a “maybe” ally.
Ispahani was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 26, 2003.
How important a trip was this for Musharraf? Is he returning to Pakistan with something substantive in his pocket?
It was an extremely important trip for Musharraf and, actually in terms of symbolism, it was very important for him. The Pakistani government lobbied very hard [for him] to be received at Camp David. He is the first South Asian leader to visit an American president there. Musharraf needed to demonstrate to his other commanding generals as well as to his opposition in Pakistan, which has been growing substantially, that he really does have absolutely clear-cut support from the United States. [Moreover,] Musharraf, before the trip, downplayed what might come out of it. He said, “Certainly, we will discuss [the Pakistani-Indian territorial dispute over] Kashmir, but that’s really not going to be central to the agenda. Certainly, we’ll ask for these F-16s [fighter plans, which he did not get], but really what we’re going to do is talk about small trade agreements and things like that.”
And then he ended up with more than he indicated ahead of time he would get?
Yes. He got $3 billion over five years in straight aid. When the United States made the agreement to gain Pakistani support for the war in Afghanistan in 1980, [Pakistan’s then-leader] General Zia al-Haq got $3.2 billion over five years. It was a very similar amount to what Musharraf got. If you tally up what [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto got over the years, it comes close to this. [Bush’s pledge to Musharraf] is a good amount of money. It puts Pakistan among the top recipients of U.S. assistance. But for some of his opponents, of course, nothing would have been enough.
Is this U.S.-aid package a plus or minus for Musharraf, given the anti-Americanism in Pakistan?
It is both. Given American power, which everyone understands and recognizes in Pakistan today, this was very important for Musharraf. The second point is that Musharraf has no other base of support right now outside of the army. He really does need U.S. support. Even [Pakistan’s] religious parties recognize that American support has some meaning. As it is in most countries these days, American support is a double-edged sword, of course. But I wouldn’t say that it has no positive elements. It is also important because it allows Musharraf to demonstrate that the United States is not only a pro-Indian power in the region. It is very important for Musharraf’s constituency, which is the military.
Can the United States count on Pakistan as an ally on terrorism and a backer of its policy in Iraq and elsewhere?
My answer to that is, maybe. If you simply focus on the al-Qaeda and Arab terrorist component of the problem— will Musharraf help in hunting down al-Qaeda members remaining in Pakistan?--I would say yes. There is too much at stake for him with the United States, and [the Pakistanis are] willing to [root out al-Qaeda]. To a great extent, they are doing that already. On Afghanistan, Musharraf, with a lot of pushing and prodding, has agreed to be as helpful as the United States is going to need him to be. A tripartite commission of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States has been set up to pursue Taliban remnants in the border areas. The answer there is yes.
The reason I said “maybe,” is that, in the last few years, there have been allegations, which are fairly serious, that Pakistan is continuing to trade with North Korea in nuclear know-how and material. It is not clear if that will stop. President Bush has insisted on that stopping.
Has Musharraf denied that Pakistan trades with North Korea?
The Pakistani government denied the trading took place. Musharraf implied that, if it happened in the past, it was not happening now.
Did that satisfy the United States?
Bush raised it in the recent talks. There are broad U.S. concerns regarding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons: nonproliferation, safety and security of nuclear material, and the dangers of a conventional Indo-Pakistan conflict escalating to the nuclear level.
Are there problems over Kashmir?
The issue there is Pakistan’s role in supporting cross-border terrorists— or jihadis— who cross into Indian Kashmir. The Indians are furious about this and accuse the United States of having double standards in South Asia, treating Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror because it hunts down al-Qaeda but not leaning on Musharraf sufficiently to stop local jihadis from inflaming the situation in Kashmir. Musharraf says that this is all in the past, and does not happen now. But there is continuing evidence that cross-border infiltration continues. For the sake of U.S.-India relations, if nothing else, U.S. emissaries repeatedly press this point with Musharraf.
The Indian government in early May made a proposal to lessen tensions with Pakistan. How have the Pakistanis responded?
Slowly. On both sides, it is going to be a very slow process. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s initiative to resume direct talks was very important and was recognized across both India and Pakistan as being that, but even some of Vajpayee’s own bureaucrats were, I think, taken by surprise, as were the Pakistanis. And now, the Pakistanis are reciprocating, but a small step at a time. I think the Pakistanis are losing hope that the United States is really going to involve itself in the Kashmir dispute in any significant way. Musharraf recently said there may need to be some compromises made over Kashmir.
Does the professional middle class, which seemed to rule Pakistan in its early years, back Musharraf? Isn’t that an important secular group and wouldn’t it support him?
A much smaller community of people controlled a much larger arena of politics in those years. Now, that small group has broken down into multiple different political communities and some of those professionals, particularly middle-class and lower middle-class, have gone into the religious parties. They’re educated, often in the West, but also in religious traditions. They have gone primarily into the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a very important party. Some of those professionals are in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPA) [the secular party of Benazir Bhutto, who is now in exile]; some of them are in the Nawaz Sharif party [the Pakistan Muslim League party of the former prime minister overthrown by Musharraf in 1999 and sent into exile]. They are not necessarily anti-Western. You can be anti-Musharraf and not be anti-Western. I think Musharraf has made some important mistakes since he assumed power in that bloodless coup in 1999. Perhaps if he had not made those mistakes, we might be in a somewhat different place, but he chose a very specific political route.
What were those mistakes?
Everyone in Pakistan was critical of the April 2002 referendum in which he won 98 percent of the vote. Musharraf was the only candidate.
That was a referendum for Musharraf to stay in power?
To be named president. But more important, he agreed to have national elections in October 2002, and a lot of the international community, particularly the Commonwealth states, put a great deal of pressure on Musharraf to make this transition [toward restoration of democracy]. So he holds the elections, but he absolutely refused to permit two very important leaders, whatever their flaws and weaknesses, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, to play any role whatsoever in those elections.
Unfortunately, his absolute blind spot regarding these two leaders meant you had two headless parties that— though they may be incompetent— were basically pushed out of the scene to the maximum amount possible. The end result was that the Islamic parties did better than they had ever done in the history of Pakistan.
This was a unique development, and one that I profoundly believe is a very serious development in the history of Pakistan because— for reasons related to how Pakistan was created, the way the constitution was drafted, the role of Islam in public life in Pakistan over the years— you cannot take an Islamist step forward and assume there will ever be two possible steps backward.
It’s very difficult to reverse Islamic laws. Religion, in any community or country, has a very powerful hold on people. You cannot defame it or disparage it. It is very difficult to critique, except internally. And Pakistan has sadly not thrown up a single liberal theologian or thinker of any stature in its entire time as an independent country. In North Africa, by comparison, states from the Sudan to Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria are producing modernist thinkers. There isn’t any of that in Pakistan.
Have Pakistani Muslims adopted the strict Islamic practices of some Arab states, like the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia?
No. South Asian Islam is, in one sense, very different. These are Muslims who have spent several generations on the subcontinent, who, until the creation of Pakistan 55 years ago, had lived as a large minority among a primarily Hindu population, ruled by the British and, much earlier, by the Muslim Mughals. Many in South Asia worshipped saints and mystics as well as followed traditional religious practice. You have a very large percentage of Shiites in Pakistan— some 20 percent. The remainder follow several schools of Sunni thought. The difficulty is that the politically organized constituencies and communities are ultra-fundamentalist parties. There are vast multitudes of people who are Muslim who have no particular political organization, but the ones who are currently powerful follow a very strict, puritanical version of Islam.