Commentary

The Shah of Pakistan?

America’s most vulnerable ally in the war on terror is Pakistan. But our alliance with the nuclear-armed Islamic state may be exacerbating that country’s instability.

For eight years, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf has delayed, deferred and ultimately denied his citizens the right to freely choose their next leader. U.S. policymakers and analysts concede that Musharraf’s autocratic rule is a problem but fear that whoever replaces him may be worse.

Once before in that part of the world, Washington backed a high-profile ruler without regard to his constituents’ wishes: Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. The result was a fiasco for American foreign policy. The Shah’s legacy should caution U.S. policymakers that allying too openly with an unpopular leader could have dangerous repercussions.

From 1953 to 1979, Iranian life under the Shah was dreadfully brutal. Through SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police and intelligence service, political opponents were routinely tortured. Methods included electric shock, nail extraction, insertion of broken glass into the rectum, and “cooking,” which entailed strapping a victim to a bed of wiring that was then heated, cooking the victim alive. The Shah’s repression was systematic and unyielding, but he was also America’s principal strategic ally in the region.

President Dwight Eisenhower gave the Shah millions of dollars in emergency aid for his complicity in Operation Ajax, the U.S.-British coup that overthrew the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, a decisive turning point in Iran’s history. President Lyndon Johnson, who mistakenly praised the Shah for “winning progress without violence and without any bloodshed,” signed-off on a six-year, $600 million military sales credit package for the Shah. And President Richard Nixon offered the autocrat the right to buy any non-nuclear U.S. weapons system without congressional or Pentagon review, a deal later described by Time magazine as “carte blanche” for the Shah.

Like America’s overt support for the Shah, assisting Musharraf is risky for several reasons…”

For Pakistan, unwavering support and an open aid spigot are rewards for Musharraf’s assistance in apprehending terrorists. After the fall of Afghanistan’s Taliban government in late 2001, the United States authorized over $10 billion in aid to Pakistan, allotted in $100 million monthly payments plus an additional $200 million in annual payments. The aid is meant to help the Pakistani military retard insurgent gains in the Pashtun-dominated North-West Frontier Province as well as combat the spread of Taliban fighters in the lawless tribal border regions of Waziristan.

Like America’s overt support for the Shah, assisting Musharraf is risky for several reasons:

First, America’s assistance to a dictator increases the power of that country’s extremists. In Iran, the Shah’s brutality and corruption fed deep-seated resentment among the Iranian citizenry, a resentment that led to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the emergence of an Islamist regime and the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979. Iranians wanted to end the Shah’s despotism, a despotism they perceived was largely underwritten by American aid. For Pakistanis, a similar anger resonates today.

A poll released this month by the United States Institute for Peace and the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes found that a majority of Pakistanis favor a more democratic political system. While Pakistani voters are largely unsympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban, Islamists in that country exploited anti-American sentiment at the ballot box in 2002. An alliance of six fundamentalist parties called Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, won 52 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly, becoming the third largest bloc in Pakistan’s parliament.

A second danger in allying overtly with a dictator is that U.S. policies now stand at odds with the wishes of the Pakistani people. Musharraf’s dismissal last March of Pakistani Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry spawned waves of pro-democracy protests throughout the country. Despite the Pakistani public’s pervasive feeling of disenfranchisement, U.S. aid continued to flow, further cementing anti-American attitudes and feeding a unifying fervor of greater political self-determination. The more overtly we aid Musharraf, the more Pakistanis will feel that their political independence is being denied by political pressures from Washington.

The third danger of supporting an unpopular autocrat is that U.S. interests would be jeopardized should Musharraf fall. If the United States continues to work for Musharraf and against his opponents, those opponents likely would give little attention to U.S. interests if they come to power.

One alternative to backing Musharraf is to push Pakistan toward democracy; an option that many believe would address Pakistan’s political problems. But this solution presumes that the United States can micro-manage Pakistan’s internal politics. We cannot. Pakistan’s problems are complicated, deep and systemic in nature. There is also a legitimate fear that pushing democracy onto Pakistan may bring to power a civilian leader who - unlike Musharraf - may not have the loyalty of the Pakistani army, chief of army staff, and the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence. That loyalty troika is critical for any Pakistani leader to succeed. Even the late Benazir Bhutto was sacked twice as prime minister, in part because she did not have the loyalty of the Pakistani military. Many generals even made it a point not to salute her.

So what is left for U.S. policy toward Pakistan? History provides us with a practical alternative to either supporting Musharraf or trying to identify and back a democratic successor: the British colonial policy of masterly inactivity. Throughout the mid- and late-19th century, the British government in India assumed the role of non-interference in the internal affairs of the Pashtun tribes in what is today the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of modern-day Pakistan. The British assumed this policy because interference only exacerbated conflict and increased anti-British sentiment. American policymakers should assume a similar role by becoming more modest in their ambitions for Pakistan.

Rather than push, prod and encourage Pakistan to do what the United States wants, U.S. policymakers should not interfere in that country’s political affairs. Given that country’s proximity to the war in Afghanistan, the cauldron of conflict in its border region, and the fear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands, some continued cooperation with whatever government holds power in Islamabad is important. But that does not mandate that Washington become embroiled in Pakistan’s political dynamics.

The United States once earned the title of the “Great Satan” by propping up the Shah of Iran. We should not go down that same path by propping up the “Shah” of Pakistan.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.