Hands Off Pakistan

February 21, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on February 21, 2008.

The decisive defeat of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League‐​Q party in parliamentary elections this week was a signal of his country’s growing dissatisfaction with his administration. His invocation of martial law, stifling the independent judiciary and crackdown on militant groups have unleashed social unrest and a wave of deadly suicide attacks, most notably last December’s assassination of opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Rather than focusing on the configuration of Pakistan’s parliament, which tells us very little about that country’s security and political future, we should concentrate on the condition of the Pakistani military in its fight against Islamist insurgents — a fight that many Pakistani citizens believe Washington has outsourced to Musharraf. Thus, while U.S. policymakers must now seek opposition leaders that can bring some semblance of stability to the government, it must also do what it can to help Pakistan’s military in its fight against Islamic militants.

Maintaining open relations with the Pakistani Army is critically important to the security of South Asia. Pakistan’s proximity to NATO operations in Afghanistan, knowledge of the intricacies of Pashtun tribes and status as the only Islamic nuclear state all necessitate an avenue for human‐​intelligence sharing and assistance in counterterrorism operations.

But since 2003, when the Pakistani Army began fighting insurgents by deploying more than one hundred thousand troops to the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, more than seven hundred Pakistani troops have been killed in clashes with militants. According to Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Steve Coll, desertions and mutinies are increasing, with a number of low and midlevel Pakistani soldiers openly sympathetic to al‐​Qaeda and the Taliban. Furthermore, some officers now admit that morale has not been this low since the Indo‐​Pakistan War of 1971, when Pakistan split in two and lost its province of East Bengal, which became Bangladesh.

According to Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Pakistani Army has not demonstrated the capability to effectively carry out counterinsurgency operations in the volatile North West Frontier Province or in the semiautonomous region of Waziristan. Cordesman also asserts that any prospect of future success “has yet to be validated.”

For the short term, Tehrik‐​e‐​Taliban, al‐​Qaeda and other networks of tribally organized militants will continue to grow in strength and recruits. Aside from Ms. Bhutto, jihadists have directed attacks against former Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, civilians and political demonstrators, soldiers of the Pakistani Air Force and Army, the headquarters of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency and President Pervez Musharraf himself.

The crisis facing Pakistan’s military severely constrains America’s options. The best option is to continue military aid while not overly embracing Musharraf. The continuance of aid should, however, be predicated on the condition that no money be spent on weapons platforms for use against its chief adversary India, as the Pakistani military’s purchase of F‐​16s and Sidewinder missiles is of no discernable use against militants. In response to Islamabad’s feeble attempt to acquire naval equipment, one congressional aide observed caustically, “the last time we checked, the Taliban did not have a navy.”

The most important conclusion to draw from Pakistan’s recent elections is that the United States has very little say about the future direction of Pakistan’s internal politics. Despite the 9/11 Commission’s assessment of Musharraf as representing “the best hope for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Musharraf is now a lightning rod. And as we have witnessed in other parts of the world, too much support for one leader against the wishes of his people brings the possibility of over‐​Americanizing a country’s civil‐​military conflict, a condition that in the future could adversely affect U.S. interests. The option of suspending aid or pushing for democracy would be too much, too soon. Outright abandonment could generate disastrous repercussions while pushing too hard for democracy could lead to chaos, increased radicalism, or both — as in Iraq. The best America can do is to continue aid while relying on Pakistanis to self‐​correct their own political system, as efforts to directly intervene will only exacerbate the crisis. There is no quick fix.

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