I think the New York Times has this one right. “For more than five months the United States has been trying to orchestrate a political transition in Pakistan that would manage to somehow keep Gen. Pervez Musharraf in power without making a mockery of President Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Muslim world. On Saturday, those carefully laid plans fell apart spectacularly.”
Not since Hamas’ dramatic victory in the Palestinian elections has the disconnect between Bush’s democratic rhetoric and reality of U.S. policy been so starkly exposed. In the former case, Washington responded to democracy with rejection, and support for the Fatah coup. How will it respond to Musharraf’s assault on the fading façade of incipient Pakistani democracy?
Recall that Musharraf toppled the democratically elected president of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, in 1999. The year before Pakistan had conducted nuclear weapons tests, and been slapped with U.S. sanctions. Relations with the military dictatorship were cool until 9-11, after which Musharraf became a key U.S. ally in the “war on terror” and recipient of massive U.S. aid.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, through his deputy Richard Armitage, told Musharraf: “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,” if he was unwilling to cooperate in the destruction of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. That regime was largely a creation of Pakistani military intelligence, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia its main supporters. But Musharraf agreed to break ties, host U.S. forces, and even to suppress any (democratic) anti-U.S. demonstrations in his country.
Using Pakistani military bases as part of its campaign, the U.S. swiftly overthrew the primitive Taliban apparatus, chased al-Qaeda and some of the Talibs across the border into Pakistan, allowed the reemergence of the Northern Alliance warlord regime with a Pashtun fig-leaf figurehead, proclaimed a great victory and then without skipping a beat shifted its attention to the wholly unrelated target of Iraq.
In the border area, often described as “lawless” and never fully controlled by the central government of Pakistan, tribal leaders met the routed Afghans as well as the al-Qaeda Arabs with hospitality. In the interim, the latter have not only survived, regrouped and facilitated military opposition to the Karzai regime in Kabul, but acquired a following within Pakistan. There is now a Pakistani Taliban movement that in coalition with other anti-government Islamist movements in the country (alongside “moderate” democratic movements as well) seriously challenges Musharraf’s regime. In July, in an effort to crack down on Islamist forces, the government stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing 183 according to the BBC. Tensions between the Islamists (who are well represented in the military) and Musharraf are at a boiling point, recently obliging him to reach out to political rival former prime minister Banazir Bhutto.
The U.S. put Musharraf in a very difficult position. “You must agree,” it told him in 2001, “to help us overthrow Pakistan’s own creation, the Taliban.” After he did, he was told, “You must send your soldiers to places in your country they have never been deployed before, to crush the fleeing Afghans and al-Qaeda terrorists. Or we will do it for you.” The region where these forces have taken refuge is, as Eric Margolis recently wrote in an excellent column, “under express constitutional guarantee of total autonomy and a ban on Pakistani troops ever entering there.” Pakistani army efforts to crush them have met with dismal results, forcing Islamabad to in effect sue for peace a year ago.
In September 2006 the government signed a pact with tribal groups, including the “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” whereby the latter would prevent cross-border movement of militants into and out of Afghanistan in exchange for the government’s cessation of air and ground attacks against militants in Waziristan. This met with some concern in Washington, and Voice of America announced that the pact had Mullah Omar’s blessing. But Bush spokesman Tony Snow at the time said that the agreement was aimed at combating terrorism and that Islamabad had assured the U.S. the accord wouldn’t undermine the hunt for Osama bin Laden. In any case, the attack on the Red Mosque led to reprisals on government forces in Waziristan and the collapse of the Waziristan Accord.
The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the collective product of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies concerning national security issues, was released last July just as the accord broke down. It declared that al-Qaeda has regained the same strength it had as of the 9-11 attacks due to (1) the “safe haven” it has enjoyed in parts of Pakistan and (2) its association with “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” which has allowed it to “energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives . . .” That set the neocons chattering about a U.S. attack on Pakistan.
“I think the president’s going to have to take military action there over the next few weeks or months,” Bill Kristol said on Fox News. “Bush has to disrupt that sanctuary. I think, frankly, we won’t even tell Musharraf. We’ll do what we have to do in Western Pakistan and Musharraf can say, ‘Hey, they didn’t tell me.'” It got the White House talking tough. Tony Snow answering reporters’ questions refused to rule out striking at targets inside Pakistan. Asked if the U.S. would seek Pakistan’s permission before a strike, he said “We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets. . . . Those are matters that are best not discussed publicly.” He declared that Musharraf is “going to have to be more aggressive” in going after al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
In fact, the U.S. had already conducted strikes. One in January 2006 a military airstrike targeting the village of Damadola in the Bajaur tribal area of northwestern Pakistan killed at least 18 people, including women and children. It apparently targeted al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The U.S. government denied responsibility, which suggests this was a CIA operation. During the same month a missile attack killed eight people in a village in North Waziristan, prompting protests throughout the country and two official letters of protest hand delivered from the Foreign Office to U.S. embassy officials. His American allies’ disregard for Pakistani sovereignty was becoming an acute embarrassment for Musharraf.
Only July 20 Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam called US officials’ comments about striking targets along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border “irresponsible and dangerous,” adding, We cannot, nor should we be expect to take indiscriminate action over a large territory without any precise information about any Al Qaeda or terrorist hideout.” But the following day Bush in his weekly radio address stated he was troubled by the report that al-Qaeda was gaining strength in the Pakistani tribal region. Then Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush’s homeland security adviser, told CNN that if the U.S. has “actionable targets, anywhere in the world, including Pakistan, then we would respond to those targets. . . . There are no options off the table.” This produced an immediate angry response from the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, who told CNN: “Some people are talking irresponsibly of attack in the tribal areas by the United States. People in Pakistan get very upset when, despite all the sacrifices that Pakistan has been making, you have the sort of questions that are sometimes asked by the American media. . . [But] indiscriminate attacks could only undercut efforts to win hearts and minds.”
On July 25, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Verga told an unusual joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “If there were information or opportunity to strike a blow” on Pakistani territory “to protect the American people” U.S. forces would act immediately. On the same day at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns declared, “Given the primacy of the fight against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, if we have in the future certainty of knowledge, then of course the United States would always have the option of taking action on its own.”
Of course this sort of talk did not go down well in Pakistan, and had to worry the general. His goal was to survive assassination attempts and serve a third term as president. To do that, he had to get the parliament to change the constitution, and prevent the Supreme Court from declaring such a move illegal. Thus he suspended the Chief Justice in March. But the judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was reinstated by the Court in July, handing Musharraf a setback just as the U.S. was ratcheting up pressure on him. Thereafter, Condi Rice has been twisting his arm to accept an arrangement whereby Bhutto, back in Pakistan, can organize her Pakistan People’s Party to work with him to support the “war on terror.” That deal requires that he leave his Army post.
Last month Musharraf won the parliamentary vote for president, but the Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether he can legitimately hold the post without resigning from the army. Perhaps anticipating a negative decision, he has now declared a state of emergency and is busy locking up political opponents and shutting down the independent press. He has perhaps determined that to do otherwise he would either (1) fall to a “People’s Power” type movement coalescing around Bhutto (no democrat but with some populist appeal), or (2) fall to Islamist forces including some in the military. He might also feel that the first of these results would lead dangerously to the second, embroiling Pakistan in conflict with the U.S.
Washington forced Musharraf into his present position. He’s the leader of a nation in which the Taliban’s presence and popularity grows. This results from no fault of his own but as a result of the “regime change” exercise in Afghanistan six years ago and its failure to destroy either the Taliban or al-Qaeda. He’s the leader of a nation in which Osama bin Laden’s popularity is far greater than his own. He’s the leader of a nation appalled (like most nations) at the carnage in Iraq, resulting from an invasion based on lies. He’s the leader of a Muslim nation with a huge Shiite minority (the second largest Shiite population in the world, next to Iran) whose adherents will—with likely Sunni support—react with outrage to a U.S. attack on neighboring brotherly Iran. He’s been put in a very tight spot by the neocons’ wild moves towards the creation of an American Raj in Southwest Asia. He wants to cooperate, but he’s perhaps reached the point where he feels that to say “Yes, Ma’am” again to Condi will not just mean his own political fall but the rise of others whom the U.S. will target with deadly force.
“Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age.” That’s what Musharraf told CBS’s “60 Minutes” he was told by Colin Powell’s deputy in 2001. Surely such words haunt him, and played a role in his decision to declare the state of emergency, “making,” as the New York Times puts it, “a mockery of President Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Muslim world.”
The U.S. State Department, having reportedly discouraged Musharraf from declaring martial law in the past, pronounces itself “deeply disturbed” by the “extra-constitutional actions” he has taken. Possibly this just another sniffle of hypocrisy dripping from Pinnochio’s lengthening nose. Maybe the move received prior authorization from Musharraf’s patrons in Washington. Quite possibly the Vice President’s office has a different reaction from the State Department’s (often the case) and feels a stronger, more dictatorial Musharraf will be a more useful ally when the missiles hit Iran. Surely we will soon see how sincere these U.S. expressions of support for the Pakistani constitution and “democracy” really are.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org