Recent threats by the Bush administration to cut off billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan have sparked panic in government circles. Likewise, according to the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, military strikes by the United States aimed at al-Qaeda and Taliban havens inside Pakistan’s tribal areas would destabilize Pakistan and “possibly could bring [General Pervez Musharraf] down.” But how worried should the Pakistani authorities really be in the face of growing US pressure to root out Islamic militants?
Occasional frustrations notwithstanding, it is, in fact, unlikely that the US will turn against a faithful – and dependent – ally, especially one whose leader enjoys cordial personal relations with Bush. Nor, due to a lack of organized opposition, will public anger at Musharraf’s pro-US policy destabilize his regime. Indeed, the wily general-president does not merely survive crisis after crisis, but has thrived in power.
How does he do it? The answer lies in a finely honed strategy, perfected over years, that juggles US demands and the interests of local intelligence chiefs, mullahs, tribal leaders, venal politicians, and a host of fortune seekers. Webs of intrigue and murky players obscure details, but the priorities are unmistakeable.
First, American impatience must be held in check. Pakistan is expected to deliver results on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, the pot is not to be emptied all at once. For example, when US Vice-President Dick Cheney arrived in Islamabad in early March, threatening an aid cut and direct US action against Islamic militants, his message was not lost. Shortly before his unmarked aircraft landed, Pakistan announced the capture in Quetta of Mullah Obaidullah, deputy to the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Omar. Obaidullah carried a $1 million reward and was the most senior Taliban captured since November 2001.