Misguided Meddling in Pakistan

For years the U.S. has attempted to mold Pakistan. The result is not pretty: an unstable, undemocratic state which possesses nuclear weapons, border provinces which offer safe haven to Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, and people who loath the American government. The murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is merely the latest blow to Washington’s plans.

Pakistan was born in violence as part of Britain’s partition of its Indian colony on the way to independence. The seeds of continuing international conflict were sown by leaving the bulk of primarily Muslim Kashmir in Hindu India. Equally foolish was concocting a geographically divided Pakistan in which the peoples of east and west shared little other than religion.

During the Cold War Washington used Islamabad to balance against an India which leaned towards the Soviet Union. It was never a good bet: India was more democratic and militarily stronger, besting Pakistan in two (or three, counting an early battle over Kashmir) wars. The last one, in 1971, birthed an independent Bangladesh out of East Pakistan. Today Bangladesh is poorer and perhaps even less stable than Pakistan – though, mercifully, it lacks nuclear weapons.

During the 1980s Pakistan was America’s primary conduit of aid to Afghan mujahedeen forces fighting the Soviets. Since 2001 Pakistan again has been a front-line state, this time in allied efforts to eradicate al-Qaeda and suppress the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Even as the Bush administration was constructing a fanciful “axis of evil” out of the disparate nations of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Pakistan was proving to be a greater problem. First, despite receiving more than $10 billion from the U.S. since 9/11, Islamabad was but an indifferent ally in the war on terror. The Musharraf regime delivered up some al-Qaeda operatives, but was thought to shelter others. The northwestern provinces, never fully under the central government’s control, provided refuge to anti-American forces, including, it was often charged, Osama bin Laden.

The Pakistani military was either unable or unwilling (or, more likely, both) to eliminate these sanctuaries. The bottom line for Islamabad was ensuring regime survival, not aiding America. Even Musharraf’s limited cooperation angered the Pakistani people, almost half of whom said in a recent CNN poll that they approved of bin Laden.

Pakistan also embodied the problem of nuclear proliferation, having built an “Islamic bomb” despite Washington’s opposition. Today the regime is thought to possess as many as 120 nuclear warheads, though estimates vary wildly. Even worse, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb, set up an international “Nukes-R-Us,” peddling his wares around the globe. After his activities were discovered, the Pakistani government professed its shock, shock. But the Musharraf regime refused to make him available to U.S. intelligence, inflaming skepticism in Washington of the claim that planeloads of nuclear materials were being shipped around the world without anyone in Islamabad knowing anything.

Finally, Musharraf, who seized power from an elected government in a coup, paid only the barest pretense to democratic forms despite the Bush administration’s loud crusade for democracy. Not that Pakistani democracy, which tended to alternate irregularly with military rule, met America’s standards. For instance, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, father of recently murdered Benazir Bhutto, refused to honor the results of the 1971 election, triggering a civil war between east and west, leading to India’s intervention. He also opened his nation’s drive for nuclear weapons in 1972. (Bhutto was later ousted and executed by Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul Haq, who himself died in a mysterious plane crash.)

Nor were the more recent reigns of Benazir Bhutto and Muhammad Nawaz Sharif much better. They continued work on nuclear weapons, leading to Pakistan’s first tests in 1998. The two civilian leaders allied with the Taliban, supported Middle Eastern militants, and tolerated religious persecution at home. Both were thought to profit from the corruption that pervades public life in Pakistan. Indeed, Benazir Bhutto was ousted from office twice in response to claims of corruption. She and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, were convicted in Swiss court and he was jailed for years in Pakistan on corruption charges. He was released only in a politically inspired amnesty.

As a result, few mourned the demise of democracy after Pervez Musharraf’s October 1999 coup against Prime Minister Sharif. Musharraf proclaimed: “I would like to move away from the sham democracy we have had in Pakistan.” Of course, he did no such thing. Last fall he even staged a coup against his own government, using the state of emergency to replace members of the supreme court, thereby ensuring its approval of another presidential term.

This was not to the Bush administration’s liking, but there was little it could do. For decades the U.S. provided aid, sold weapons, and offered diplomatic support to whatever regime happened to be in power in Islamabad. Yet America had minimal success in promoting domestic reform.

Foreign aid has done little anywhere to generate economic growth, and tens of billions of dollars – from the U.S., World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other institutions – for Pakistan proved to be no exception. The country of 165 million remains desperately poor, with a per capita GDP of just $829 in 2006, despite enjoying better than average economic growth of late. Nor did America’s ministrations result in much liberalization of Pakistani politics, even during formally democratic episodes. True democracy requires far more than occasional elections, but Pakistan lacks the tolerant public ethos and private mediating institutions that are so important in creating stable democratic systems.

Finally, nothing the U.S. did – provide aid, make threats, cut off aid, impose sanctions – affected Islamabad’s decision to go nuclear. Short of launching air strikes or invading, Washington could not stop Pakistan from taking a step which it saw as essential to its national interest in light of the decision by its principal military rival, India, to develop nuclear weapons.

Indeed, only by threatening to begin bombing did the Bush administration get Islamabad’s attention after September 11. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage apparently told President Musharraf: “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.” Thus was Pakistan forced to drop Afghanistan’s Taliban regime as a client and formally enlist in the coalition against al-Qaeda. The pressure worked because Washington’s threat was credible and Pakistan was able to determine what "is" is, in President Clinton’s parlance, when it came to “cooperating” with the U.S. Musharraf continually played upon Washington’s fear of his possible overthrow by Islamic extremists, warning that he could only go so far in accommodating the U.S. Analysts divided over his vulnerability, but few policymakers wanted to take a chance.

Musharraf’s growing isolation – even before Bhutto’s assassination, two-thirds of Pakistanis opposed his plan to serve a second term – led the Bush administration to push even harder on the democratic front. But the options in Pakistan’s “big man” form of politics were essentially limited to Bhutto and Sharif. Sharif was viewed as too favorable towards Islamic fundamentalists and antagonistic towards the U.S. Moreover, though he also was twice prime minister, and was the elected official ousted by Musharraf, Sharif lacked a Greek Chorus in Washington.

Bhutto, though both courageous and Westernized, looked little better on any objective measure. As noted earlier, Bhutto’s record didn’t inspire confidence. In two stints as prime minister she passed few pieces of important legislation, failed to control abuses by security forces, promoted the Taliban, did little to discourage Islamic radicalism, and was dismissed from office for corruption.

Moreover, she, no less than Sharif, represented a family and tribal politics common to South Asia, in which her party was more a tool of personal ambition than political philosophy or moral principle. British author William Dalrymple called her “a feudal princess with the aristocratic sense of entitlement that came with owning great tracts of the country and the Western-leaning tastes that such a background tends to give.” Indeed, she prevailed in a bitter intra-family struggle for control of the Pakistan People’s Party. While she was prime minister, her younger brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, was shot dead by the police, causing accusing fingers to point her way. His daughter (her niece), Fatima Bhutto, complained that Benazir Bhutto’s “role in his assassination has never been adequately answered, although the tribunal convened after his death under the leadership of three respected judges concluded that it could not have taken place without approval from a ‘much higher’ political authority.”

(After Benazir Bhutto’s death, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, took over control of the PPP, nominally on behalf of their 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, who has started calling himself Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Asif served as a cabinet minister in his wife’s second administration and earned the sobriquet “Mr. Ten Percent” for his reported attention to the earning potential of power.)

Despite this record, Benazir Bhutto had several advantages over Sharif – beauty, exile in Britain rather than Saudi Arabia, less apparent tolerance for Islamic radicals, and, most important, a calculated willingness to tell Westerners what they wanted to hear. Former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith said of her: “She was this completely charming, beautiful woman who could flatter the senators, and who could read their political concerns, who could persuade them that she would much better serve American interests” than would her opponents. As a result, she was lavished with encomiums by Washington’s policymaking and punditry elites. Indeed, a veritable flood of journalists and analysts claiming to be her “friend” emerged after her death, extolling her manifold virtues. One commentator even rhapsodized about the “Asian Winston Churchill.”

Thus, the Bush administration applied strong pressure on Musharraf to allow Benazir Bhutto back into the country to contest parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for next week. Washington sold this as a grand step forward on the return to democracy, but Musharraf surely saw the political advantages for himself. The proposed political condominium would provide Musharraf with parliamentary legitimacy for his continued rule; in return, Bhutto would receive a decision-making role as prime minister. Their dealings looked more like two oligarches dividing the political spoils than opening up the political system.

Indeed, for this reason the negotiations cost Bhutto public support. Barely a quarter of the population believed that she had returned for the country rather than to satisfy her own ambitions. Most people thought deal would serve Musharraf and Bhutto more than the average Pakistani.

The likely benefits for America were even less clear. Any accommodation would have been uncertain and unstable, prone to collapse at the slightest challenge. Moreover, despite Bhutto’s pro-Western rhetoric, noted analyst Stanley Kurtz, “Her supporters are poor people who haven’t benefitted from the growth of Pakistan’s economy under Musharraf. They’re attracted to Bhutto’s socialism, not to hopes for liberal democracy or military assaults against the Taliban.” To have acted at Washington’s behest would have quickly sapped her remaining popularity.

Then came the assassination.

Now the Bush administration’s plans are in ruins. The politician who was supposed to lead the restoration of democracy is dead. Most U.S. policymakers distrust the only other major democratic leader, Sharif. Says Peter Rodman of the Brookings Institution: Sharif is “a wild card and not to be trusted.” Sharif returns the sentiment, asking with evident asperity: “Now that a major Pakistani political leader has been assassinated, why is [Bush] still supporting his man” Musharraf?

The Musharraf government is suspected – almost certainly wrongly, but truth is of little matter to conspiracy-minded Pakistanis – of complicity in the murder. Moreover, even those inclined to think favorably of the president must wonder at the behavior of government officials who denied Bhutto additional protection, lied about the cause of her death, and impeded any effective investigation of her murder.

The assassination sparked violent riots, which in turn begat a new military crackdown. The government also delayed the poll, triggering new protests from the opposition. The possibility of cooperation among Musharraf; Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf; and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, which united only around her, seems slight, to say the least. The likelihood of Pakistan emerging as a stable and liberal democracy continues to fall.

But the administration still shouts advice from the sidelines. The Pakistani people should persevere in pursuit of democracy. The country should remain calm. The election should go ahead as planned. The election should be postponed as proposed. And so on.

One unnamed administration official told the Washington Post: “Plan A still has to work. We all have to appeal to moderate forces to come together and carry the election and create a more solidly based government, then use that as a platform to fight the terrorists.” Apparently fantasy drives more than the administration’s Iraq policy.

Alas, there is little evidence that the Pakistani people much care what Washington says. Frankly, it’s doubtful that Musharraf much cares either, given how badly the administration’s “Bhutto option” turned out. Anyway, how can U.S. policymakers seriously argue that they have the slightest idea what to do to “fix” today’s mess?

Of course, reality hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from concocting grand new initiatives. Various presidential candidates have proposed that Washington issue all sorts of demands, including that Musharraf accept an international inquiry into Bhutto’s death and even step down.

The New York Times urged the Bush administration to “fortify Pakistan’s badly battered democratic institutions.” Other analysts and pundits suggest that the U.S. government enhance its military involvement in Pakistan, increase aid to encourage economic development, promise to remain engaged over the long-term, intensify diplomatic efforts to improve Pakistan-Afghan relations, push for normalization of Pakistani-Indian relations, improve Pakistani military capabilities, and demand greater access to local intelligence.

The International Crisis Group has just published a detailed paper entitled: “After Bhutto’s Murder: A Way Forward for Pakistan.” Among its proposals: Musharraf should resign, the constitution should be fully restored, and power should be transferred into civilian hands. The ICG forgot to mention sending the tooth fairy to visit every Pakistani child.

All these ideas sound wonderful in theory. But Washington has virtually no practical means to achieve any of them. Just how would the U.S. “fortify” political institutions that have been largely dismantled by the incumbent dictator supported by Washington? Does anyone expect Musharraf to voluntarily yield power? And who believes that a liberal democracy would result from a coup or street riots sufficient in strength to drive him from power? Alas, the administration’s “Benazir gambit” has knocked Humpty Dumpty off the wall, and no American can put Pakistan’s political system back together again.

Indeed, there’s no reason to believe that any civilian Pakistani government would be notably more competent, less corrupt, and more willing to combat Islamic extremism than past civilian regimes, let alone more likely to survive. The building blocks for liberal democracy remain absent: the population is 60 percent illiterate; the civic ethos is one of conflict rather than cooperation; broad-based community groups and institutions are largely nonexistent; family and tribal identities transcend other loyalties; the army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (Pakistan’s CIA) have long dominated Pakistani life.

Under such circumstances the best strategy for the U.S. government would be to put distance between itself and the authorities in Islamabad. Cooperation would still be necessary to deal with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. A continuing dialogue over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would remain worthwhile. And America’s bully pulpit should be used to broadly affirm the ideals of a liberal society: the responsibility of governments everywhere to respect the lives and dignity of their peoples, and to be accountable to them.

But no more attempting to micro manage Pakistani political affairs. No more trying to dictate political actors and outcomes. No more supporting or undermining the government. No more taking sides among contending parties. No more pronouncing judgment on every permutation of Pakistani politics. No more seeking to buy political allegiance with more “aid.”

In contrast, Americans – and others around the world – could do much more by supporting private organizations that go around the Islamabad regime to support local development projects and build relationships with community and tribal leaders. The vast majority of Pakistanis disdain the U.S. government. The answer is not better State Department propaganda, but less meddling by Washington policymakers and greater involvement by private Americans actually interested in Pakistanis as people.

Social engineering doesn’t work in America. Attempting to reorder the globe is an even greater fantasy. Decades of plans and programs designed to remake Pakistan have come to naught. The failure of Washington’s latest strategy, based on the return of Benazir Bhutto, was not surprising, just more disastrous than usual. It’s time U.S. policymakers learned a lesson from their manifold mistakes and said no more.