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 the military.
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 unilaterally”.
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:
c The political parties are weak, poorly organized, corrupt, with ever-decreasing popular appeal.
c Extremist civil elements are supported by radical military brethren.
c The economy, in the doldrums for the last 12 months, has fomented popular discontent and given the extremists’ momentum.
c 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 so.
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 regional threat.
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.
John R. Thomson lived and worked for four decades throughout the Muslim world, as businessman, diplomat and journalist.