Backing the Right Horse in Pakistan

As US-led air strikes pound Taliban military installations and troops in Afghanistan, religious extremists throughout Pakistan burn American flags and denounce General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime for its collaboration with the West. With American forces poised to launch ground operations, it is clear that Pakistan’s military has done more than merely abandon its former Taliban allies: in the days and weeks ahead, it will play a crucial role in assisting the US-led alliance’s effort to defeat them.

Like General Musharraf, most moderate, secular political parties in Pakistan believe that supporting the anti-terrorist campaign is in their country’s national interest, because international isolation is the only other option. Moreover, mainstream parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the National Awami Party (ANP) oppose the Taliban’s distorted view of Islam, as well as its support for local Sunni radicals who carried out terrorist attacks within Pakistan.

But General Musharraf, Pakistan’s self-appointed president since October 1999, is leaving little to chance. The war against Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and its Taliban protectors has helped him consolidate his hold on power, providing a pretext for extending his term as Chief of Army Staff and reshuffling the military high command to remove or sideline potential rivals. He also has named a close ally, General Ehsanul Haque, to head the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and has promoted protégés to other key positions, including vital corps commands and the Vice Chief of Army Staff.

So far, General Musharraf’s immediate goal appears to be stability. If he remains confident of Western acquiescence, however, he may be tempted to backtrack on his pledge to restore democracy by October 2002, the deadline imposed by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Indeed, he has already regained respectability since the September 11th attacks in the US, which turned Pakistan overnight into a “frontline” state in the campaign against terror. Previously, the country had been an international pariah owing to the military’s seizure of power, General Musharraf’s commitment to nuclear weapons tests, and the military’s support for the Taliban.

Of course, Pakistan’s intimate knowledge of the Taliban is a prime asset for US military planners. Pakistani intelligence is essential to identifying targets, and Pakistani military personnel will be invaluable in guiding US search and destroy missions across Afghanistan’s treacherous terrain. The military’s considerable influence with cross-border Pashtun tribes, the Taliban’s main ethnic constituency, may also be helpful, because effective ground strikes will most likely require that Western special forces move into Taliban-controlled territory from Pakistan’s Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier provinces.

Cooperation with the West has already won General Musharraf’s regime substantial rewards. The US, Japan, and the European Union are easing diplomatic and economic sanctions, and multilateral financial assistance has resumed. The danger, however, is that these concessions will provide the military with the political and economic clout it needs to resist internal demands for a return to democracy.

In fact, General Musharraf seems to have convinced the Bush Administration and a broad segment of Western opinion that military rule is a necessary evil. With Pakistan’s support for the US-led offensive against Afghanistan fueling domestic religious extremism, only the military, according to this argument, can prevent the Talibanization of a nuclear-armed regional power.

But this is a specious claim. After all, it was Pakistan’s military that nurtured religious extremism in Afghanistan and in Pakistan itself. In 1994, the military recruited Afghan students ( talibs ) from Islamic seminaries ( madrasses ) run by Pakistani religious parties. With Pakistani military and political support, the Taliban ousted Mullah Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government in 1996 and eventually captured 90% of Afghanistan. The Taliban repaid their debt by training and indoctrinating Islamic extremists, some of which have acted as Pakistan’s proxies in the anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir.

Today, the religious parties that helped create and sustain the Taliban, particularly the Jamiat-i-Islami (Society of Islam), are estranged from Pakistan’s military and are the most vocal opponents of the regime’s pro-US stance. Their followers are well organized, well armed and well trained. But they remain a minority (if a noisy one), and with many of their leaders under arrest, pose no significant threat to the military.

For this reason, the US and its allies should heed the warnings of Pakistani moderates, who repeatedly say that long-term political stability requires a return to democratic rule. US support for three successive military rulers allowed Pakistani religious extremists to establish their public foothold- ironically, by exploiting anti-American sentiments.

That same double game is, perhaps, still being played. For even as Pakistan’s military and security services help the US fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, General Musharraf continues to support the same breed of religious extremism in Kashmir. Should the US back him unconditionally, the only loser will be Pakistan’s moderate secular opposition.

General Musharraf deserves praise for his current pro-US stance. But this should not exempt his regime from international pressure to abide by the Supreme Court’s timetable for democratic restoration. The alternative is to entrust the stability of a conflict-prone region to the Pakistani military, itself a major culprit behind the spread of Islamic extremism. US foreign policy towards the region must recognize that a moderate, democratic Pakistan implies a far more reliable partnership than an alliance of expediency with an un-elected and unreliable military regime.