Schaffer: Pakistan Facing Question on How to Handle Extremists

Schaffer: Pakistan Facing Question on How to Handle Extremists

Teresita C. Schaffer, a former State Department official with extensive experience in South Asia, says the violence that has spread in Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf ordered a crackdown on the Red Mosque in Islamabad may lead to some rethinking among army leaders in Pakistan on the value of keeping the extremists in Pakistan alive as a political force.

August 8, 2007 3:59 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Teresita C. Schaffer, a former State Department official with extensive experience in South Asia, says the violence in Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf’s crackdown on the Red Mosque in Islamabad may lead to rethinking among army leaders on the value of maintaining extremists in Pakistan as a political force. She says: “We need to watch and see if they have really decided they need to put these people out of business. If they have, that would be an important policy turn for the United States . To be fair, it’s a high-risk policy, but there are no risk-free policies in today’s Pakistan."

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Pakistan has been in the news lately in part because of the continuing problems on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also by the indications that some in the administration might even countenance an American attack on terrorist sanctuaries inside of Pakistan. This has raised hackles in Pakistan where President Pervez Musharraf has considerable political problems of his own. What should concern Americans about Pakistan these days?

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Radicalization and Extremism

First, and I’m taking this in the order of the way the administration looks at priorities, is the connection between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is complicated in part because the two countries have always gotten along badly. The issue of greatest concern to the United States is the terrorism issue and the extremely difficult time the United States and its NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies have had getting Afghanistan to stabilize and develop like a more normal country following the end of the Taliban regime in 2001 and through the turbulent fight that followed.

Second, I would say, is the internal situation in Pakistan. Musharraf has been the centerpiece of U.S. policymaking in the region. He took power in a military coup nearly eight years ago, and at this point is in serious trouble for a number of reasons. One was his effort to fire the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, which backfired badly first by sparking months and months of protest, and second because the Supreme Court turned him down. Musharraf is now faced with an awakened political opposition, albeit not a particularly united one, as well as the black eye administered by the judicial system.

A second source of his trouble has to do with domestic extremism. The people involved are the same as the people involved in the Afghanistan problem, but their dynamic is a little different. Here the problem started with Musharraf’s decision to send in the army to the Red Mosque in Islamabad when the Red Mosque people had been involved in basic defiance of government authority: things like kidnapping people. Musharraf, a lot of people think, was rather slow to react as the situation had been unfolding in the Red Mosque. But the aftermath of that decision has been a string of violence that is unmatched in Islamabad, which is normally a sleepy suburban-feeling little town, as well as in the areas near the Afghan border, and also far away from that.

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A third problem of course is the traditional feud between Pakistan and India, the nuclear neighbors. Kashmir is the poster child for this dispute but by no means the only part of it. I mention that third because at the moment India and Pakistan do have a dialogue going. It’s not clear to me that this dialogue is going to accomplish anything very much in the near term, but at least it represents a decision by both governments that they’d rather talk than squabble.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

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Radicalization and Extremism

Are there elections scheduled yet?

According to present Pakistani law, the presidential election which is carried out not by the people but by the national assembly and the four provincial assemblies, must take place between September 15 and October 15, because the president of the national assembly’s term is scheduled to expire on November 15. November 15 is also the date when the national assembly’s term expires. They’ve got three months till the other national assembly election which is carried out by the people. That’s the current rule book on election timing. Now let me give you the complications.

The first is the sequence of the elections. Many people believe it is in some sense democratically inappropriate for President Musharraf to get himself elected by assemblies that are all about to go out of existence, so that may be challenged in the courts. I’m not sure how likely that is to get a sympathetic reading from the courts, but it’s going to be a focus for political protest. The more complicated issue however is that Musharraf wants to run as a general and head of the army. There his legal situation is much more complicated. The law is very confusing, but a lot of people believe the law to say that he needs legislative sanctions to continue to be both president and the head of the army either beyond the end of this term or beyond December 31. This is guaranteed to be challenged in court and the challenge could well be successful. So this adds another element of unpredictability. But the big election, which people are watching in the sense of participation of the parties and so on, is the legislative election. At this point the opposition political parties do not appear to be planning to put up a candidate in opposition to Musharraf. There has never, as far as I know, been a contested presidential election, because the way the constitution was originally written the presidency was supposed to be a relatively weak office. Of course at the moment that is not true.

Now, let me come back to the problems Musharraf has had with extremists in his own country. It would seem to be a plus for the United States if he were to really crack down on them. On the other hand, does that hurt him politically?

Musharraf’s basic approach to the extremists, both the domestic ones and those on the Afghan circuit, has been to hedge: try to keep them under control but not to attempt to put them out of business. This partly reflects his view of what’s possible, but the opinion—which is widespread in the army—is that they have used these people in the past as a foreign-policy instrument both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan. They may use them again; they don’t want them totally gone. I don’t think this hedging strategy can work anymore. But, I’m not sure the Pakistani army leadership has really reached that conclusion. Clearly what happened after the Red Mosque has been a shock. We need to watch and see if they have really decided they need to put these people out of business. If they have that would be an important policy turn for the United States. To be fair, it’s a high-risk policy, but there are no risk-free policies in today’s Pakistan.

There has also been talk about him trying to strike a deal with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minster who was exiled from the country and who obviously leads a very moderate brand of Islam. Is that deal at all possible?

There have been contacts going back at least three years, which have stirred lots of overheated speculation, so this isn’t a new thing. The argument that is made by people close to Musharraf is that such a deal would permit him to reduce his dependence on the religious parties, which have been in opposition but in practice quasi-allies for the past five years. As of today, there is a widespread assumption the deal has virtually been done. I don’t altogether share that. It seems to me that really some very key issues aren’t settled. On Benazir Bhutto’s side, will she be allowed to run for prime minister and with what kind of powers? On Musharraf’s side, will he in fact take off his uniform? He’s dropping hints of maybe doing so next year or the year after but the last time he reached an agreement of stepping down from the army, he didn’t follow through.

Both of these people have ample reasons to mistrust each other and are very wary of what’s happening. Benazir Bhutto also has to watch her back; there are PPP [her political party] people who have been in Pakistan throughout the time she has been in exile, at least one of whom has received greater visibility in the political protests that followed the Supreme Court issue, because he was the chief justice’s lawyer. More dangerous from her point of view is that her archrival during the 1990s, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now in exile in London, has submitted a petition to the Pakistani Supreme Court to invalidate his exile. If the Supreme Court approves that and he goes back to Pakistan, she kind of has to be there to maintain her credibility, and this creates a very unpredictable situation.

Why has Musharraf been so insistent on remaining head of the army, when he could be de facto head of the army anyway? Or is that not possible?

Oh, sure it is. The president is commander in chief of the army. So it’s not only possible, but there is precedence for it. The precedence particularly has to do with Ayub Khan, who ruled Pakistan for eleven years starting in 1958. Ayub Khan, about a year into his presidency retired from the army, kept his rank (in fact promoted himself to field marshal), and remained commander in chief. The army eventually removed Ayub Khan as president. But Musharraf is very well aware that there were ten years between Ayub’s retirement from the army and his removal. So, on the one hand he might say “What’s the big deal?” On the other hand, Ayub Khan made that move when he was at the height of his power, which Musharraf is certainly not at now. His feeling is that as long as he is head of the army he directly commands troops, and he has very direct chain-of-command authority over all the senior officers. This is a very hierarchal and disciplined army. Besides, he’s more comfortable this way and that’s what he wants to do.

Does he spend more time in the army than anyone else?

He certainly spends plenty of time with the army. He regularly conducts meetings of the senior staff and meetings of the core commanders who are the people who command the major units all over Pakistan. This is widely regarded as his most important constituency.

There has been considerable speculation that the U.S. government might do something unilaterally in Pakistan. President Bush was asked about that while meeting with Karzai the other day and kind of fudged his answer. We have Special Forces, of course, in that region and they could do something secretly, but I think a publicized clash in Pakistan using U.S. forces would probably be quite unusual, wouldn’t it?

It would not only be unusual, it would be absolutely devastating both for Musharraf’s government and more generally for U.S. relations with Pakistan. That would unite Pakistanis in a ferocious nationalistic response. I don’t think this is something the United States is seriously considering at this time. But there is no question the administration is very frustrated with the inadequate results from whatever the Pakistanis have been doing to eliminate the Taliban safe havens in the areas near the Afghan border.


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