Pakistan on the brink
No one knows for certain where nuclear-armed Pakistan is headed. President Pervez Musharraf stepped closer toward the ledge Nov. 5 following a “state-of-emergency” declaration by imprisoning thousands of political adversaries, sacking the supreme court and arresting lawyers and judges who refuse a loyalty oath. That follows a silencing of the media, the postponement of January elections and the imposition of a heavy police and military street presence to intimidate opponents.
In essence, Gen. Musharraf is playing his remaining strengths in a military uniform in a bid to retain power, keenly aware that his cooperation in the war on terror is indispensable.
Since Gen. Musharraf seized power in 1999, military officers’ extensive presence in government and in the doling of favors have worn on the military’s reputation. It is not clear how much longer the Pakistani public will countenance Islamabad’s extensive politicization. Meanwhile, internationally, Gen. Musharraf clearly believes that he has called the West’s bluff, and so far, there are dangerously few signs that he is wrong.
A sense of confusion in U.S. policy emerged last week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced her disappointment on Nov. 4 and called for a review of U.S. security assistance to Pakistan in what seemed like a warning to Gen. Musharraf to stop the dictatorial backsliding. On Nov. 5, she also called for Gen. Musharraf to hold the January elections that he promised. Then, intentionally or not, Sec- retary of Defense Robert Gates all but declared any U.S. security review to be toothless. “Pakistan is a country of great strategic importance to the United States and a key partner in the war on terror,” Mr. Gates said from China, urging a return to “law-based, constitutional and democratic rule as soon as possible.” But any defense review will be “mindful to not undermine on-going counterterrorism efforts.”
In reality, Gen. Musharraf has already undermined U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The groundwork was laid in decades of official encouragement of radical Islamist opinion. Under the general himself, a seeno-evil policy regarding the intelligence services’ cooperation with radicals has reigned. Now, this week’s “second coup” drags U.S. assistance through a new layer of mud. The general seemingly cannot distinguish between threats to his continued occupation of the executive offices and genuine threats to the security of Pakistan. Or can he?
With police tear-gassing and beating lawyers in the streets, Western diplomats must attempt to walk Gen. Musharraf back from the ledge. Unless and until a post-Musharraf path is devised, careful negotiation is the chief option for this nuclear-armed and autocratic government.