Pakistan: In Too Deep

by , November 11, 2007

Except for the hardly inconsequential difference that the U.S. is not conducting a military occupation, Pakistan is similar to Iraq in at least one important way. Once the initial mistake was made, it has become difficult for the United States to extricate itself (if it wanted to, which this administration almost certainly does not) and leave, changing the nature of the commitment or hunkering down will have results that can be spun as the unfortunate consequences of the U.S. not hanging tougher.

After 9/11, when it became obvious the United States was going to invade Afghanistan and would have a fairly substantial chance of ousting the Taliban regime (if not necessarily to manage the transition to anything like a decent society there) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made a strategic/tactical choice.

Musharraf’s secret police agency, the ISI, had been heavily involved in subsidizing, advising and sometimes lending concrete human assistance to the Taliban regime. To be fair, it was seen by some (though not all, the ISI was and is riddled with jihadist sympathizers and supported the huge network of radical madrassas throughout Pakistan teaching nothing much but rote memorization of the Koran and jihad) as a force for stability in a country that was pretty chaotic. But Musharraf, helped along by a few no-nonsense phone calls and visits from U.S. officials, decided that the Taliban was likely to be defeated and that at least for the next foreseeable period, it was prudent to cast one’s lot with the United States. So he did.

One can understand U.S. officials being pleased by this turn of events, and in fact Pakistan has been of some assistance in the vaunted "global war on terror," to the extent that U.S. officials occasionally looked beyond the quicksand of Iraq to notice that there were a few real threats out there in addition to the manufactured threat of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda. The mistake was to believe he was sincere.

Bush, like many intellectually incurious people who are impatient with details, places great stock in his supposedly preternatural ability to "size up" people after a brief encounter (remember his ability to look into Vladimir Putin’s soul?). A meeting or two with Musharraf allowed him to convince himself that Pervez was his kind of fella.

Well if you think about it, there are similarities between Musharraf, an army general who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and has never paid anything more than lip service to such quaint notions as democracy, liberty and the importance of a civil society independent of the rulers of a country, and President Bush.

The Bushlet, with a little help from his friends, proved fairly adept at playing the democratic game at the raw and almost irrelevant level of finding ways to garner votes. But his relentless grasping for more "plenary" executive power – fed no doubt by Dick Cheney, who had been pining over the loss of institutional presidential power since Watergate – shows him to be a political leader with a lot more of the monarchist or autocrat than the instinctive democrat or libertarian. He uses words like "freedom" and "democracy" handily enough, but he presses for limitations on freedom and increased exercises of governmental power kept secret from and therefore unaccountable to the people.

It may be fruitless to wonder what goes on in that underused mind of his, but it may be something like a notion that limitations on freedom and increases in surveillance and government power are all not only necessary but desirable in the service of what he just might conceive of as a "higher" form of freedom than the rabble can understand – though in practice it translates into more power, perquisites and money for him and his circle. In short, it’s more than possible that Musharraf, who has virtually no democratic instincts or impulses, really is Bush’s kind of fella.

But I digress.

The upshot, from the administration’s perspective, was that Musharraf was not only deemed a reliable ally in the "war on terror," but an "indispensable" (former intelligence czar John Negroponte actually used the word within the last few days) cog in the wheel of the great American imperial enterprise. So the administration lavished money (at least $10 billion since 9/11, probably a good bit more if you could track the covert stuff) on Pakistan and pretended to believe that he was really some kind of democrat deep down inside, determined not only to defeat al-Qaeda and other nasty folk, but to bring his country ever closer to being a true democracy.

Many American officials, almost certainly including Bush himself, probably even managed to convince themselves that this was the case. Unless you have a certain cold and calculating Metternichian cast of mind, it is difficult for many people – especially many Americans – to acknowledge openly that you are supporting a leader in another country strictly on the basis of a cold-blooded calculation of what your interests are and how that person can advance them, caring not a whit whether that person is a saint or a sinner. Bush can calculate in that way, I suspect, but I suspect he feels more comfortable when he can convince himself that he’s really operating not out of cold interest, but in service of some higher ideal, like promoting democracy or paving the way for the spread of Christianity.

Fortunately – I was going to say for him but not for us, but in the longer perspective is it really all that fortunate for him? – he seldom has much trouble convincing himself, no matter how far-fetched the case, or how wide the gap between noble words and sordid actions.

So Bush kept sending the money and praising Musharraf extravagantly whenever the two met or when some development in Pakistan created a perceived need to comment. He had measured the man himself, after all, and it would be a sign of weakness to alter that original estimation.

So when Musharraf declared martial law – excuse me, a state of emergency – and began jailing opposition party members and journalists, it took Bush several days to process the information. And even when he finally made the phone call to tell his old buddy Perv that he really should take off that army uniform and hold elections as scheduled, he didn’t (unless there’s something we haven’t been told, which wouldn’t be all that unusual, but I suspect this would have been trumpeted) mention the idea of freeing all those "enemy combatants." And he went so far as to claim that unlike in Burma/Myanmar, Pakistan had actually been on the road to democracy, so it deserved to have some slack cut.

As a result of offering unquestioning support for a natural dictator who could mouth the phrases associated with democracy just often enough, the U.S. confronts a situation in Pakistan in which almost all the likely alternatives are unsavory. The Taliban and al-Qaeda really are resurgent in the border territories, and whatever relatively moderate and/or secular elements remain in Pakistan (long ago they used to be dominant) are utterly sick of Musharraf. The most ungovernable country in the world, as some have described it, is becoming less governable by the day (which in an existential sense might be a point in its favor, but in the short run looks rather chaotic and violent).

It’s hard to see anything less than disastrous in the next few weeks and months.

And, of course, the notion that Bush is the least bit sincere in his protestations that his relentless desire to intervene in the affairs of other countries has the slightest relationship to promoting democracy in anything other than an incantatory sense is now in shreds. From now on invoking the desire to spread democracy can only provoke sneers and guffaws.

Nice work.

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