The crisis began on March 9, when Musharraf suspended Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice of the supreme court, who bravely threatened Musharraf’s plans to consolidate his power. That triggered street protests demanding Musharraf’s resignation, which were met by a government-led crackdown on lawyers, the opposition and the media. Thousands of lawyers nationwide, looking like penguins in their courtroom black suits and white shirts, braved police batons and the heat to lead marches. They were joined by women’s groups, journalists and the opposition. For the first time in two decades, Pakistan’s civil society has taken to the streets.
The roots of the crisis go back to the blind bargain Washington made after 9/11 with the regime that had heretofore been the Taliban’s main patron: ignoring Musharraf’s despotism in return for his promises to crack down on al-Qaeda and cut the Taliban loose. Today, despite $10 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan since 2001, that bargain is in tatters; the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has set up another haven inside Pakistan’s chaotic border regions.
The problem is exacerbated by a dramatic drop-off in U.S. expertise on Pakistan. Retired American officials say that, for the first time in U.S. history, nobody with serious Pakistan experience is working in the South Asia bureau of the State Department, on State’s policy planning staff, on the National Security Council staff or even in Vice President Cheney’s office. Anne W. Patterson, the new U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, is an expert on Latin American “drugs and thugs”; Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, is a former department spokesman who served three tours in Hong Kong and China but never was posted in South Asia. “They know nothing of Pakistan,” a former senior U.S. diplomat said.
Current and past U.S. officials tell me that Pakistan policy is essentially being run from Cheney’s office. The vice president, they say, is close to Musharraf and refuses to brook any U.S. criticism of him. This all fits; in recent months, I’m told, Pakistani opposition politicians visiting Washington have been ushered in to meet Cheney’s aides, rather than taken to the State Department.
No one in Foggy Bottom seems willing to question Cheney’s decisions. Boucher, for one, has largely limited his remarks on the crisis to expressions of support for Musharraf. Current and retired U.S. diplomats tell me that throughout the previous year, Boucher refused to let the State Department even consider alternative policies if Musharraf were threatened with being ousted, even though 2007 is an election year in Pakistan. Last winter, Boucher reportedly limited the scope of a U.S. government seminar on Pakistan for fear that it might send a signal that U.S. support for Musharraf was declining. Likewise, I’m told, he has refused to meet with leading opposition figures such as former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf has exiled. (Boucher says he has met with "people across the full political spectrum of Pakistan" during his nine visits there, from government parties to Islamic radicals to Chaudhry’s lawyer.) Meanwhile, Boucher’s boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, demands democracy and media freedom in Venezuela but apparently deems such niceties irrelevant to Pakistan.
With Cheney in charge and Rice in eclipse, rumblings of alarm can be heard at the Defense Department and the CIA. While neither agency is usually directly concerned with decision-making on Pakistan, both boast officers with far greater expertise than the White House and State Department crew. These officers, many of whom have served in Islamabad or Kabul, understand the double game that Musharraf has played — helping the United States go after al-Qaeda while letting his intelligence services help the Taliban claw their way back in Afghanistan. The Pentagon and the CIA have been privately expressing concern about the lack of an alternative to blind support for Musharraf. Ironically, both departments have historically supported military rulers in Pakistan. They seem to have learned their lesson. It’s a pity that those calling the shots have not.
What is at stake? Quite simply, the danger of a civil war or the country unraveling even more dramatically than it did when it lost Bangladesh in 1971.
The establishment that has sustained four military regimes is deeply divided. The judiciary and the legal system are out in the streets, demanding an end to military rule. They are backed by the country’s gleeful federal bureaucracy, which resented being shunted aside by Musharraf, and joined by civil society organizations and opposition parties. The protesters’ ranks have also been swelled by poor people protesting increases in the price of food and other necessities and shortages of electricity during an already blistering summer.
These dissenters have been joined by an increasingly influential media. Under military regimes, the media always grow in stature as they act as the conscience of the people and give voice to political opposition. For the first time, the public can watch demonstrations live on private satellite-TV channels — something that has bewildered the army’s Orwellian thought-control department.
On the opposing side stand Musharraf’s remaining allies. The most important is the powerful, brooding army. On June 1, its top brass issued a strong statement of support for Musharraf that dismissed the protests as a "malicious campaign against institutions of the state, launched by vested interests and opportunists." But on live TV talk shows, pundits are lambasting the army for the first time, shocking many viewers. Such withering criticism has forced younger officers to question whether the entire military establishment should risk the public’s wrath to keep one man in power.
Musharraf is also supported by the business community, which has experienced economic stability and rising investment from the Arab world during his regime. He also retains — for now — the backing of a motley group of politicians who came to power after the military rigged elections in 2002, although many of them are considering jumping ship or ditching Musharraf.
Running parallel to this domestic political crisis is the growing problem of radical Islam; the Taliban and al-Qaeda are now deeply entrenched in the tribal border belt adjacent to Afghanistan. These groups gained political legitimacy last year when Musharraf signed a series of dubious peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. They are now coming down from the mountains to spread their radical ideology in towns and cities by burning down DVD and TV shops, insisting that young men grow beards, forcibly recruiting schoolboys for the jihad and terrifying girls so that they won’t attend school. The military has refused to put a brake on their extremism.
Musharraf promised the international community that he would purge pro-Taliban elements from his security services and convinced the Bush administration that his philosophy of “enlightened moderation” was the only way to fend off Islamic extremism. But Pakistan today is the center of global Islamic terrorism, with Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mohammad Omar probably living here.
Instead of confronting this threat, the army has focused on keeping Musharraf in power — negotiating with extremists, letting radical Islamic students set up a base in Islamabad and so forth. Meanwhile, to spook the West into continuing to support him, Musharraf continues to grossly exaggerate the strength of the Islamic parties that he warns might take over his nuclear-armed country. In fact, the United States would be far safer if it pushed for a truly representative Pakistani government that could marginalize the jihadists, rather than placing all its eggs in Musharraf’s basket.
How will the current crisis end? It’s unlikely to peter out; the movement has lasted three months now, despite Musharraf’s intelligence services’ prediction that it would end within days. And Chaudhry is a formidable foe — not a mere politician (who, in Pakistan, are inevitably corrupt) but a judge perched above the political fray.
The logical strategy for Musharraf would be to apologize to the nation for hounding the chief justice, bring all parties to a reconciliation conference and agree to early elections under a neutral interim government. If he still insisted on running for president, he would have to agree to take off his uniform first so that no matter who won, Pakistan would return to civilian rule.
But how can a commando general carry out such a U-turn without losing face, especially when he is being publicly backed by the White House? A secretary of state with vision — a James Baker or a Madeleine Albright — could have recognized that Musharraf’s time is up. Instead, we have Rice and Boucher and Cheney, who — just as in Iraq — can only reinforce a failed policy. Washington is doing itself no favors by serving as Musharraf’s enabler. Indeed, the Bush administration’s policy of sticking by Musharraf is fast becoming eerily reminiscent of the Carter administration’s policy of sticking by the shah of Iran.
* Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, is the author of “Taliban.”