Unless something drastic happens, the United States is about to lose its principal trusted Pakistani ally, President Pervez Musharraf. The newly elected Pakistani coalition government, distracted by its own internal squabbles and power struggles as it divvies up its newfound collective power since the elections, appears set to finally proceed with the impeachment of Musharraf. The loss of Musharraf in Pakistan will prove a watershed moment in the future of the conflict before us.
Ironically for Pakistan, the future of democracy there may ultimately be at stake, lying in the uncertain hands of a fractious coalition government that has been even more at odds with itself than with Musharraf, whose own massive unpopularity put them in power in the first place.
In November, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency and sacked supreme court justices who were expected to nullify his recent parliamentary re-election to the presidency, he asserted that he was protecting democracy in Pakistan. And, even though he forced through his re-election before his party was expected to be swept from the majority, a seeming affront on the spirit of the democratic process, he may well have been more correct than many would have ever thought at the time.
For once the convulsing new ruling coalition executes the two points they agree on – booting Musharraf and restoring justices – the Pakistani government may devolve into a state of weakness only ever more vulnerable to the bloodlust of the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance which seeks to replace it.
The Pakistani vote that followed Musharraf’s November moves was far less a national acquiescence to any real or imagined PPP or PML-N vision for the country than a resounding voice of displeasure for Musharraf. The principle partners in the new government, the PPP of assassinated Benazir Bhutto and the PML-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, agree on little beyond a unifying opposition to Musharraf.
The PML-N, in fact, withdrew its members from the national cabinet when the two parties could not agree on a timetable to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf – a primary platform on which both parties were elected to perform. But several of them have now rejoined the cabinet, once again unified in seeking the ouster of the president through impeachment proceedings almost certain to succeed if a parliamentary vote is taken.
But then what?
The government of Pakistan is in far more disarray now than before Musharraf’s PML-Q party was unceremoniously given the electoral boot. Power struggles continue to play out with an ebb and flow that tear at fought-over institutions and in ways the very writ of government. Pakistan lacks a strong central figure that, for all his flaws (and they are many), it at least had in Musharraf. Pakistan has always been infamous in its corruption, and the battle lines only magnify that now, with instability growing and encroaching on American strategy against terror like gathering storm clouds on the too-near horizon.
For there are two central tenets that the ruling PPP/PML-N coalition agree on; distancing themselves from the United States as an ally in the war on terror and the ouster of Pervez Musharraf, America’s most vital connection. Both of these tenets are aims shared by both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who have made numerous assassination attempts on Musharraf and are currently executing a very patient insurgency inside Pakistan. This is not to say that the Pakistani ruling coalition and the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance are partners by any means – and certainly not the PPP, whose leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by the latter.
But it is worth noting that the head of the PML-N, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was reported by the Pakistani press at the time to have received billions of rupees as a campaign donation by Usama bin Laden in his first failed run at the premiership in the late 1980’s. He also has a close relationship with Hamid Gul, the former ISI director said to be good friends with bin Laden and often referred to as the father of the Taliban, which he had a significant hand in creating and supporting.
This is the new government of Pakistan, which seeks the end of Musharraf’s days and the end of Pakistan’s days as anything more than a nominal American ally. And there appears little in the way to prevent that. The future for us thus becomes much more difficult in our drive to liquidate al-Qaeda and the Taliban, still with sound sanctuary in the parts of Pakistan where the government has little if any writ. And the level of that writ decreases daily in more and more areas.
Pakistan does not want to simply sever ties with the United States. They do, at the end of the day, recognize – if only seemingly just enough - that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have their eyes on them, too. And the billions each year in US aid money in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation is a significant boost for the government and its military. The challenge for them is in how to walk the fine line, doing as little as possible without actually losing the very significant sums of American financial aid.
Consider the timeline of events after the Indian Embassy was bombed in Kabul, Afghanistan. The United States had signals intelligence linking Pakistani ISI officers to the bombers and tried to leverage this intelligence upon a Pakistani government drifting not only away from America, but towards outright disarray and instability with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their midst.
- Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan bombed by al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance on July 7th.
- US privately informs Pakistan after the bombing that they ‘have a problem’ that the US has little patience for, namely al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters within their ISI ranks. While not a new problem nor a new revelation to either party, the point is clearly stressed.
- Pakistan announces that it is rolling the ISI (military intelligence) under civilian oversight, namely the Interior Ministry, once considered by far and away the most stalwartly loyal to President Pervez Musharraf. A ‘purge’ is hinted at though not plainly stated.
- A CIA UAV missile strike on a ‘madrassa’ in South Waziristan, Pakistan, kills four al-Qaeda members, including one senior leader, Abu Khabab al-Masri, who was al-Qaeda’s chief chemical weapons and bomb expert.
- Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani visits President Bush in the White House, then upbraids him in a press conference, saying the US is impatient and needs to hand over intelligence and let Pakistan forces “handle ourselves.” He adds that Pakistan is “fighting the war for ourselves,” suggesting that the United States back off.
- Likely a bit miffed at the rebuff, only then does the US publicly release the intelligence data linking Pakistani ISI members to the terrorist cell that bombed the Indian embassy in Kabul.
- Pakistan responds by reiterating that plans to roll the ISI under Interior Ministry control is still in the works, even though it was opposed by Musharraf and the military and thus reportedly rescinded hours after its original announcement.
President and Chief of Army Staff, Musharraf tried to play both sides by cooperating with the United States and placating the Taliban and al-Qaeda enemy within. Without Musharraf, the Pakistani government also gives every indication it intends to play both sides by placating the United States and avoiding any confrontation with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, affording them even more fertile fields to grow in within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Their demand that we share intelligence and leave strike execution solely to them is laughable on its face if the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance is to be combated and eventually defeated. We shared intelligence with the ISI ahead of strikes on 29 known al-Qaeda and Taliban training camps, probably to prove a point. And when the subsequent strikes on those camps found them suddenly and largely abandoned, the point was clear. We clearly did not share strike intelligence or data ahead of the strikes that recently killed Abu Khabab al-Masri. If we had, he surely would not have been the recipient of an al-Qaeda obituary glorifying the terrorist groups’ chief chemical weapons expert.
As this ever-weakening government continues to move ahead with often self-destructive results and internal disarray, our strategy will have to adjust accordingly. The pace of airstrikes against high value al-Qaeda targets has already increased multiple-fold and will likely continue to do so with a sense of urgency. Necessity may one day dictate limited-scale cross-border operations directly into the Taliban-al-Qaeda lairs, operations we had hoped the Pakistani military and security forces would shoulder. A large scale incursion will likely never be in the works, as lacking a sufficient blocking anvil to hammer them against, they would simply scatter farther into Pakistan, changing little other than to cause the Pakistani military to fire at us rather than with us.
Pakistan indeed appears to have freely made the choice to move the lines, even if somewhat less than definitively. And the direction seemingly chosen may soon increase the level of difficulty and danger for us there, to say nothing of their own security amid a patient Taliban-al-Qaeda insurgency best described as ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts.’
But every dark cloud has a silver lining. And it is with little doubt that a weak post-Musharraf Pakistan gives rise to a very dark cloud. But it will almost certainly cause the United States and India to solidify an alliance that has always seemed a natural one, if elusive throughout the Cold War. If nothing else, the demise of Musharraf may ultimately add a bit of clarity in that regard.
And clarity is an all too often underappreciated aspect in national security strategy. In the long-term interests of any concern, clarity is far more valuable than consensus.