Pakistan on edge

Shaun Gregory
24 September 2006

Pervez Musharraf's military rule has led to growing Talibanisation and rising al-Qaida influence in Pakistan. As internal opposition to his policies mounts, Shaun Gregory asks: how long will the United States continue to support him?

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, the United States gave the Pakistani regime of General Pervez Musharraf little option but to join the "war on terrorism" it was intent on pursuing. Whatever the precise form of words used then to persuade the government in Islamabad to sign up to the war, the reality five years on is clear: America's policy of supporting Musharraf's military dictatorship is in crisis, and Pakistan itself is imperilled, perhaps more seriously than at any time since 1971.

In no small part the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the military in both countries. In the wake of 9/11, and with the Pentagon at the helm, the US began its war with al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, with a military campaign conducted with little regard to the complexities of the Afghan-Pakistan context. Few voices in the US were raised at the time against Washington's unholy pact with Musharraf and the Pakistan military.

Shaun Gregory is professor in the department of peace studies, University of Bradford. His book Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State will be published by Routledge in summer 2007.

The nature of this reaction was consistent with much of the political and strategic history of US involvement in the wider region. Its highlights include the United States's dismal record of paying lip-service to ideals of democracy while backing "strongmen", with disastrous long-term geo-strategic consequences for US interests (Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran is but one example); the US's muted response to Pakistan's nuclear weapons tests in 1998 (a striking contrast with the present hysteria about Iran), and indeed its reaction to Musharraf's own assumption of power by military coup in 1999.

There is a truism that, "for a man in possession of a hammer all problems look like nails". The United States can have had few illusions that Pakistan's military dictatorship, well armed by the US itself, would view military force as the means to address its security problems: both those pre-dating the 2001 crisis, and those arising from, or which were exacerbated by, the US's (and subsequently Nato's) presence in the region. The present crisis in Pakistan and the creeping failure of US policy flow from this blunder.

A Pakistani capitulation

The ambivalence of the Pakistani military and intelligence services about coming to the aid of the US in their attempt to capture the al-Qaida leadership and eradicate the Taliban was probably evident in Washington by late 2001. That was the moment when Pakistani forces failed to secure al-Qaida escape routes from Tora Bora, in the barren hills of the Afghan-Pakistan border region where Osama bin Laden was thought to be sheltering.

More astute observers in the US capital understood from that point - as perhaps they had suspected all along - that Pakistan's cooperation was always going to be subordinate to its twin overriding fears: for the survival of the Pakistani state itself, and (paradoxically) of abandonment by the US.

In the intervening five years Pakistan has led the US a bloody dance in these frontier lands. While the top al-Qaida leadership has continued to elude capture, US and Pakistani military action has poisoned the body politic in Pakistan, fuelled the rise of fundamentalism and al-Qaida sympathy in the country, and facilitated the return of the Taliban.

The strong US pressure on the Pakistan military notwithstanding, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mullah Omar was formally over in all but name when Pakistan agreed the Sargodha peace pact in February 2005 with tribal leaders in the Waziristan provinces. This pact agreed a raft of measures to end the fighting, but presented no clear demands to tribal groups, either to hand over Taliban or al-Qaida elements, or to end cross-border attacks on US and Afghan forces.

The ignominious retreat of Pakistani forces from Waziristan in August 2006 was a further historic step (the government had earlier paid southern Waziris not to attack Pakistani forces - presumably with US, Japanese and European Union money, given that these countries are the main sources of financial aid to Pakistan, which labours under a $37 billion national debt). Pakistan's military government is no longer prepared even to contest the tribal areas, and has in effect accepted peace on the Taliban's terms, and thus is permitting within Pakistan a de facto sanctuary for al-Qaida. It is little wonder that intelligence officers both sides of the Atlantic mutter that "Pakistan is the new Afghanistan".

Three arguments are proposed to explain this capitulation by the Pakistani military. First, some commentators regard it as a face-saving exit-strategy for Musharraf, which performs a triple function: it stems Pakistani military casualties (estimated at 700 fatalities by August 2006); eases the domestic pressure on the president by muting the charge, from religious parties in particular, that he has been waging war on his own people; and even enhances his own personal security, given that he has been a target of at least seven known assassination attempts since 9/11.

Second, other observers see the deal as merely the visible expression of the underlying realities which have shaped Pakistani policy since 9/11. Elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence communities have long been known to be sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida ,and the question has simply been how widely this sympathy was shared within the military government itself.

Perhaps the most telling vignette in this respect was the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Sheikh Mohammed was arrested not in the wilds of the Afghan-Pakistan border, but in Rawalpindi, the garrison and headquarters town of the Pakistani military. This seems a curious place for al-Qaida's number three to feel safe, the more so because he had earlier eluded capture in Karachi and had fled to Rawalpindi at precisely the moment he knew the net was tightening. When arrested - thanks to an operation by American rather than Pakistani intelligence - he was found in a safe house with military officers who had close links to Islamist parties.

A third group believes that the deal in Waziristan was struck above all so that the Pakistan military could disengage from the area, and redirect its forces towards the southwestern province of Baluchistan, whose tribal uprising poses a much greater threat to the territorial integrity of Pakistan.

The background to this uprising in resource-rich Baluchistan is threefold: decades of neglect of this vast region by Islamabad; the strategic importance of Baluchistan to Pakistan, arising from the gas and mineral wealth of the province, and from the pipelines which are being built with Chinese investment and technical aid to transport oil and gas to the modern port being constructed at Gwadar; and the plundering of Baluchistan's resources by Pakistan's federal government and ruling families (who have allowed precious little of the region's wealth to reach the approximately 6.5 million poor and largely illiterate people of the province).

The Baluchistan challenge

The Pakistani military, eschewing the political and economic solution proffered as recently as May 2005 from within Pakistan's neutered parliament, instead began in early 2006 to conduct bombing and ground assaults against militant groups and communities in Baluchistan, in an attempt to suppress the uprising and to clear land for pipelines and to secure resource infrastructure. These displaced as many as 250,000 people from their homes and lands, killing many civilians including women and children.

In their own defence, the Pakistani military points to the instability of Baluchistan as an obstacle to the wider prosperity, and perhaps even the unity of Pakistan and claims (without providing evidence) the involvement of Indian intelligence, Afghanistan, and even the US in stirring up trouble in the region.

In an effort to impose order on Baluchistan, the Pakistani government has been quietly engineering the "Talibanisation" of the province, much as it engineered the "Talibanisation" of Afghanistan a decade earlier. By funnelling federal aid to pro-Taliban provincial ministers in Baluchistan, and turning a blind eye to the Taliban presence in Quetta and the surrounding region (or even offering covert support to the Taliban as some claim, albeit without evidence), the Musharraf government has allowed Baluchistan to become a base from which the Taliban can recruit and strike across the border at British and Nato forces deployed in southern Afghanistan. The reality on the ground, despite official rhetoric to the contrary, is that much if not most of the Afghan-Pakistan border is now under the control of either the Taliban or pro-Taliban tribal groups.

On 26 August 2006 the Pakistani military, on Musharraf's instructions, killed one of Baluchistan's most important and charismatic tribal leaders, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. This act may with hindsight come to be seen as the moment the Musharraf presidency finally began to collapse. Bugti, though a thorn in Islamabad's side, was a political creature. His death and his replacement by more radical leaders has consolidated and re-energised Baluchi resistance, and a lengthy insurgency now seems likely which will be fuelled as Pakistan redeploys its military forces from Waziristan to the region.

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan's political and military crises:

Irfan Husain, "Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

Maruf Khwaja, "The Islamisation of Pakistan" (12 April 2006)

Irfan Husain, "The state of Pakistan"
(22 May 2006)

Irfan Husain, "The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

Iftikhar Malik, "Musharraf's predicament, Pakistan's agony"
(5 September 2006)

Pakistani dynamics, American choices

The more immediate and perhaps ultimately fatal damage to Musharraf has been done at the political level. Almost every political party in the country condemned the killing of Bugti and his death has widened further the growing divide between the military and political parties in Pakistan.

More importantly, this split is reinforcing the process of political reconciliation in Pakistan. This has been underway since the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) - which comprises fifteen of Pakistan's leading political parties, including the Pakistan People's Party and a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led respectively by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - met in London in September 2005 to agree "an effective political strategy for the restoration of real democracy and the supremacy of parliamentary institutions in [Pakistan]".

The far-reaching "charter for democracy" signed by the ARD on 14 May 2006, if implemented, would enormously curb the power of the military and intelligence services, restore democratic institutions, empower civil society and address many of the federal grievances of the provinces. Such high-minded objectives have featured in most political rhetoric in Pakistan's history; the real question today, therefore, is how far the individuals and parties forming the ARD can reconcile their differences, leave behind their self-serving neo-feudal corruption and personal ambitions and truly offer the long-suffering people of Pakistan a better future.

This is the battleground for the run-up to elections earmarked for 2007-08. The next twelve-to-eighteen months are likely to prove as pivotal for Pakistan as almost any in its short and largely miserable history. The military and pro-military elements in Pakistan are busily trying to destabilise the ARD, while the ARD is pushing for a "grand alliance" with the (Islamist) Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) which has, until recently, provided Musharraf's dictatorship with much needed political cover.

The "grand alliance" may yet stall because many of the Islamic policies the MMA is reportedly demanding as the price of alliance may prove impossible for the ARD to swallow. The cut-and-thrust of these dynamics will in turn be shaped by the fortunes of the insurgency in Baluchistan, by the situation in the North West Frontier Province, and perhaps decisively by the role the United States chooses to play.

The US has three options. First, it could decide to stick with Musharraf and - despite the failure to find the al-Qaida leadership, the loss of Waziristan to the Taliban, support for the Taliban in Baluchistan, the emergence of indigenous al-Qaida elements in Pakistan, and growing links between al-Qaida and Pakistani terrorist groups - conclude that Musharraf still represents the "least worst" option for the US.

The US could reason that there are some positive indicators in Pakistan (not least economic growth) and that the military still offers the best prospect of retaining centralised control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. This would boil down to a "custodial" strategy for the US.

Second, the US could put its weight behind an alternative to Musharraf from within the army's corps commanders, in the hope of finding someone capable of delivering a better balance of military rule and political competence. Such an internal coup is far from unlikely and Musharraf will sleep less soundly in his bed in the forthcoming months.

Third, the US could accept the abject failure of its pro-military strategy in Pakistan and, along with key allies like Britain, put the political, economic and diplomatic energy necessary into supporting and upholding a push for meaningful democracy in Pakistan. The internal dynamics of Pakistan would appear to be propitious for this change of tack.

Pervez Musharraf's remarkable outburst, spoken just a few days before a key visit to Washington, that America threatened "to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age" if Pakistan didn't support the war on terrorism, would seem to indicate a man under extreme pressure, no longer able fullt to control the venting of his emotions. Pakistan is in dire straits and those who hope for a better future for the country and its people must surely hope that the final phase of Musharraf's premiership is at hand.

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