The decline and fall of Pakistan
continues apace. Should it become a failed state, locked in an
extremist embrace, Pakistan's crucial geographical position and nuclear
arsenal would pose grave dangers to peace in Central and South Asia,
and throughout the Muslim world.
President Pervez Musharraf's
imminent passing from the scene brings sighs of relief and may possibly
end military rule. However, the immediate future will most surely see
the continuation - in fact, accentuation - of distinctly troubled times
for Pakistan and, prospectively, the region.
The country's history has been far from rosy since gaining independence from Britain and separation from India
in 1947. Muslims from India swarmed to the bifurcated Pakistan, located
to the northwest and east of the Indian Subcontinent, as Hindus fled
from the newly created nation, to join their respective coreligionists.
At least 1 million souls perished and perhaps 40 million were more made
homeless in the massive, panic-driven migration.
Initially a dominion of the British Commonwealth, the Islamic
Republic of Pakistan was declared in 1956. Within 15 years East
Pakistan became Bangladesh, independent from the dominant, domineering
and less numerous West Pakistanis, bringing to an end what were widely
divergent ethnicities, languages and lifestyles, plus an unworkable
geographical divide of more than 1,000 miles.
A major development that inhibited U.S.-Pakistani relations for
several years, was the 1998 detonation of the country's first nuclear
device, virtually simultaneous with India's initial nuclear explosion.
Even more unsettling was the subsequent revelation that Dr. A.Q. Khan,
the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear program, had sold vital development
technology to numerous countries, including North Korea and Iran.
Since the two entities separated, Bangladesh has had a flawed and
corrupt, if nominally democratic history; while former West Pakistan
has endured a flawed and corrupt, military-dictated existence for 30 of
the last 52 years.
Granted, Mr. Musharraf's reign, launched with a coup that ousted
corrupt Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999, was different from its
predecessors. Mr. Musharraf's finance minister, later prime minister,
Shaukat Aziz (a former top Citibank executive) put the country on a
sound and growth-oriented footing that continued until early 2007. In
fact, Pakistanis generally admit that, for eight years, they had not
known life to be so peaceful or prosperous.
Moreover, Mr. Musharraf was able to advance greatly Pakistan's
always poor relations with India, creating a solid working relationship
with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
To maintain power, President Musharraf triangulated among moderate
and radical factions in his own military base of support, and the
United States. Following Sept. 11, 2001, he negotiated an anti-terror
partnership of sorts with Washington, reversing Pakistan's previously
having been one of only three nations that recognized Taliban-ruled
Afghanistan. But the U.S. alliance came at a high financial price to
the United States and resulted in stiff demands by the jihadist bloc in
In addition to providing some $600 million annually in civilian and
military aid, Washington made an additional estimated $1 billion
annually available in special military assistance designed to
strengthen the government's ability to root out and eliminate al Qaeda
and Taliban extremists. However, Mr. Musharraf's fundamentalist
colleagues insisted he stall on hunting down al Qaeda and Taliban
fighters and their sympathizers in Pakistan's wild Northwest Frontier
Province bordering on Afghanistan. Major Pakistani military elements
simply blocked effective action.
Virtually every Bush administration official - President Bush, Vice
President Dick Cheney and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and
Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert
Gates, plus former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairmen Gens. Richard Myers
and Peter Pace, made multiple trips to Islamabad seeking Mr.
Musharraf's agreement to at least allow U.S. incursions into the
ungovernable areas bordering Afghanistan.
As one senior diplomat involved put it: "Musharraf always welcomed
us warmly and we usually seemed to come to agreement, but within days
the message would come that it would be better to postpone action until
a more propitious moment. We finally have been forced to act
Unwittingly, the seemingly unflappable Mr. Musharraf's stalling game
was sewing the seeds of his own downfall. The reluctance to clean out
the radical Muslim elements along the Afghan frontier gave the
impression to extremist cadres elsewhere that their time had come, and
sporadic civil disobedience evolved into mass demonstrations and
suicide bombings, culminating in the assassination last December of
Benazir Bhutto, freshly arrived just two months earlier from a
nine-year self-imposed exile.
Parliamentary elections this past February placed the two leading
parties (Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim
League–Nawaz) in a contentious coalition that eventually elected Yousuf
Raza Gilani their prime minister. Mr. Gilani took some bold if
ill-informed steps, including ordering the army to make strong sorties
against the al Qaeda and Taliban border enclaves. But he overstepped
when he tried to rein in the army's vaunted ISI, Inter-Services
Intelligence agency, and ordered it placed under civilian control, a
move that lasted exactly one day.
Keys to the wavering direction of Mr. Gilani's government are,
first, direction he has received from his inexperienced and corrupt
political mentor, Mrs. Benazir's widower Asif Ali Zardari, who solely
for emotional reasons inherited leadership of the People's Party after
his wife's murder. Secondly, the coalition's minority partner Muslim
League is headed by the discredited Nawaz Sharif.
The sad result has been that the Pakistani masses, who voted
overwhelmingly against Musharraf-backed candidates in February, are
discontented in the extreme... to the extremists' delight.
It is only possible to speculate on what sparked the proposed
impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf, which precipitated his
resignation. At this point it appears probable that fundamentalist
military elements - always strong in the ISI - together with
fundamentalist opposition members of parliament, forced the prime
minister and the rest of the civilian political establishment to make
the move. Alternatively, it has been suggested that army chief Ashfaq
Parvez Kayani has launched a plan to return Pakistan to democracy,
beginning with engineering his mentor Mr. Musharraf's removal.
Nonetheless, prospects from here forward are murky at best, dire at worst. Consider:
--The political parties are weak, poorly organized, corrupt, with ever-decreasing popular appeal.
--Extremist civil elements are supported by radical military brethren.
--The economy, in the doldrums for the last 12 months, has fomented popular discontent and given the extremists' momentum.
--Equally, soaring food prices - most notably for the dietary staple
rice whose price has nearly quintupled in six months - feed discontent
throughout the country.
Pakistan's least perilous chance would be for the democratically
elected government to be revamped and carry on. This, however, is far
from certain, as it can only happen with the support of the military,
and many generals have grown accustomed to - and wealthy from - their
comrades running the country.
Fortunately, Gen. Kayani enjoys a solid reputation for supporting
civilian rule, dating back to service as a military aide to then Prime
Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1988. U.S. military officers who have come
to know Gen. Kayani during frequent training trips to the United
States, believe he has little or no personal interest in politics and
that his focus on running Pakistan's army has served it well. Indeed,
following the February elections, he reminded his senior staff, "The
army fully stands behind the democratic process and is committed to
playing its constitutional role."
Key among Gen. Kilani's challenges: overhaul of the ISI, which has
become all but independent and internally unmanageable. Having earlier
served as head of ISI, he has perhaps the best chance of anyone to do
If Gen. Kayani is as sound as many of his American colleagues
believe and provided he has a solid moderate military support base, a
major military reform - importantly including the ISI - followed by a
radical restructuring of the political parties could put Pakistan on a
reasonably sound track. The critical component of this option: how much
genuine support Ashfaq Parvez Kayani can muster and maintain through a
very difficult transition period.
The remaining options are grim: a fresh period of outright military
rule, with an increasingly fractious group of senior officers in key
positions and radical Muslim junior officers watching their every move;
alternatively, violent overthrow by extremist civilian and military
elements, who would make a mockery of democracy and pose a grave
In the former case, sensible generals, like Gen. Kayani, would be
under enormous pressure at the least to secure Pakistan's nuclear arms
facilities; in the latter, the regional threat level would approach
that of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Despite its less than clear future, what is undeniable is that
troubled Pakistan is entering a new and very unpredictable period. As
one longtime observer of the country's woes noted: "Let's just hope
this is not the beginning of Pakistan's end."
May the generals retain their senses, reform the military -
undeniably the most powerful institution in the country - and give
democracy another chance.