America’s Musharraf Dilemma

Stung by a spree of suicide attacks, Pakistan’s military junta this week had to take in an unannounced guest bearing ill tidings. The United States wants General Musharraf to do more to crush al-Qaida, Vice President Dick Cheney told his host during a surprise secretive trip to Islamabad. After being defeated in Afghanistan, America’s bin Laden-led enemies are regrouping in Pakistan’s tribal region, said Cheney. He is reported to have warned Musharraf that if Pakistan does not produce more results, the Democrat-dominated Congress may review and revoke the American military assistance program resumed after September 11, 2001. The military’s status as a major non-Nato ally of the United States could also be in danger.

Pakistan, the fifth-largest recipient of American aid, is set to get $785 million in President Bush’s next budget. That includes $300 million in direct military aid, a sop to Musharraf’s domestic power base in the armed forces. More than just military aid is at stake. Worse could come to pass if the United States decided to take out al-Qaida targets in Pakistan with unilateral air strikes. Although White House Press Secretary Tony Snow tried to soften Cheney’s message, the Pakistani general is clearly looking down the barrel if not yet in the line of fire. A visit by Dick Cheney, who is not exactly a gun control advocate, serves as perhaps the last warning.
Flawed Assumptions

Washington’s Pakistan policy is based on two dubious and misplaced assumptions. One, that Pakistan’s military — and therefore General Musharraf — is the only viable option to govern the country. Musharraf and the military remain indispensable in the Bush administration’s war on terror. Two, American policymakers tend to put an excessive emphasis on al-Qaida and the Taliban: capture and kill so-called al-Qaida operatives and Taliban leaders, and the war on terrorism will have been half won. This simplistic approach ignores other strands of religious extremism in Pakistan that run parallel to, and often in concert with, the international network of terrorism.

The Bush administration says it does not doubt Musharraf’s intentions or his regime’s commitment to the anti-terror cause. Pakistan, after all, is itself hit hard by terrorists. No other country has shipped more al-Qaida suspects to the United States than Pakistan. More than 70,000 of its troops are stationed in the tribal region along the Afghan border. The military has absorbed significant human and material losses in its campaign against the militants.

Yet both at home and abroad Pakistan continues to be viewed with suspicion. The military regime suffers from a crisis of credibility. Islamic militants of all hues remain powerful in many parts of the country. They frequently show their destructive prowess within Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Doubters like Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and think tanks like the International Crisis Group believe that the Musharraf government is, at best, ambiguous and ambivalent in its approach and a reluctant partner in the war on Islamic extremism. At worst, they accuse the military government of allowing the Taliban, al-Qaida, and other militant groups to “regroup, reorganize, and rearm” themselves.

The gap between Musharraf’s policy pronouncements and his government’s failure to achieve those policy objectives is jarring but not inexplicable. There are three sets of limitations on the Musharraf government that impede and undermine its anti-terrorism effort: conceptual fallacies, domestic political expediencies, and operational miscalculations.
Musharraf’s Limitations

The basic flaw in the anti-extremism policies of General Musharraf is conceptual. His government officials regularly describe the Taliban as an “Afghan problem”; make spurious distinctions between Islamic freedom fighters, especially those active in Kashmir, and international al-Qaida-type terrorists; and yet, in the same breath, they berate domestic sectarian terrorists. These categorizations are facile.

Three strands of jihad converge and feed off one another in Pakistan’s radicalized Sunni mosques, madrasas and other religious institutions like the Jamaat-e-Islami. The three operate at different levels: domestic, regional, and global. The most active are domestic jihadis and anti-Shia sectarian militants (Sipahe Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi). Jihadi groups for regional Muslim causes (Hizbul Mujahideen, Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Kashmir, Hezb-e-Islami of Afghanistan) not only share the same sectarian ideology but also have organizational links with the local Sunni political parties and militant groups. And terrorists with an international, anti-West agenda — the al-Qaida genre — have sought refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and have been the focus of Pakistani military’s anti-terrorism drive.

This rather arbitrary division of jihadists into the good (regional), the bad (domestic), and the ugly (global) has led the Musharraf government to adopt incoherent, conflicting policies. It has also meant that the crackdown on militant groups is selective, reactive, and sporadic. Whereas the “ugly” — al-Qaida and the Taliban — are pitched against the 70,000 or so troops stationed in the tribal areas, their ancillary domestic outfits have only faced cosmetic bans and partial, on-off police action. The leaders of the “good” jihad meanwhile lead an active and highly visible public life, appearing in the electronic media, running radical madrasas, and regularly issuing calls for jihad from the pulpit. Their organizations, too, remain as active as ever.

Almost all the jihadi organizations banned by the government are plying the trade by other names. Many of them appear in the guise of charitable organizations and have earned praise from the highest functionaries of state for their relief work after the 2005 earthquake. Since normal political activity remains dormant under Musharraf’s rules of the game, militant organizations like Sipahe Sahaba and Taliban-like groups in the tribal areas are even trying to occupy the vacant political ground.

The Musharraf government’s dilemma of legitimacy is another stumbling block in its anti-terrorism policy. Much of the ambiguity found in the government’s anti-terrorism policy emanates from its reliance on the religious political parties to sustain the tenuous trappings of democracy. On paper the government and its principal opposition party –an alliance of religious parties known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) — have unbridgeable ideological differences. In practice, they work together in pursuit of a common political agenda, such as keeping out moderate political leaders like former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and opposing Baloch and Pashtun nationalists. In return, Musharraf has been unable to move forward on madrasa reforms, the cornerstone of his anti-extremism policy, and has extended a slew of other concessions to the religious lobby.

This untenable position compounds the military government’s credibility deficit. Little surprise then that the government’s international commitments of running off the Taliban and al-Qaida are falling short of the promised mark as it makes ungainly and often inexplicable retreats in the face of pressure from the MMA.

One of the MMA’s coalition partners, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) is a traditional and longstanding ally of the military, but it is no less vocal in its opposition to the government’s anti-extremism policies. The JI regards Musharraf as a passing phenomenon and deems the core of the military to be sympathetic to its Islamic agenda. This view may not be much wide of the mark.
Military Miscalculations

Pakistan’s military operations in South and North Waziristan since 2004 –demanded by the United States to target al-Qaida and Taliban militants — have been marred by a blatant misreading of the social and political climates in the tribal areas. These ill-conceived military operations have alienated the local population and, by default, strengthened the very forces the government had planned to defeat. It is not only the Taliban who have made gains in the ongoing operation. The Hezb-e-Islami of Hekmatyar, the Afghan ally of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami, has also resurfaced with a vengeance.

The most telling but least publicized factor, however, has been the reluctant attitude of the Pakistani troops to wage war against those whom not many years ago they had supported, encouraged, and trained to fight against the communists on behalf of the U.S.-led Free World. Many retired and serving soldiers betray intense emotions and resentment about fighting a war they neither bargained for nor want. Indeed, stress levels and casualty rates among the troops remain high. Their morale has been one of the major reasons why the government has been making hasty peace pacts with the militants. Pakistani troops in the tribal areas have achieved the very opposite effect of what was intended. Rather than being defeated or marginalized, the Pakistani Taliban have gained unprecedented power. In some areas, they run a parallel administration. Islamic vigilante groups are even replacing the traditional Pashtun tribal structures with strict Sharia laws.

So, even if one were to give the Musharraf government the benefit of the doubt and take its pious policy declarations at face value, it cannot be absolved of gross incompetence and myopic politics. Power — rather, the illusion of enjoying power — is its prime objective. In order to maintain and expand this power, General Musharraf has made pacts with the devil in both camps of the war on terrorism. Support from the United States has facilitated his authoritarian rule and exposed the reality of its much-hyped agenda of bringing democracy to the Muslim world. Support from religious parties like the MMA –to achieve domestic goals –comes at the expense of Musharraf’s anti-extremism campaign.

Caught between Cheney and jihad, Pervez Musharraf ought to rethink his — and his military’s — role in domestic and international politics. At this crucial juncture in its history, Pakistan needs an elected representative civilian government not a self-perpetuating dictator and his puppet politicians. The cause of defeating extremism will be best served by a Pakistan where the military is a professional institution, subservient to civilian rule, and not a preeminent political actor.

Washington would do well to help General Musharraf dismount from the tiger he’s been riding since staging a military coup in 1999. A timeline for the military’s withdrawal from the realm of power is long overdue. The disastrous result of propping up a seemingly moderate and liberal dictator is evident in the content as well as the context of Cheney’s Pakistan sojourn. Relying solely on military means to defeat an enemy whose ideological influence and operational reach go far beyond Pakistan’s narrow tribal belt is self-defeating. And relying solely on a military to find a sustainable solution to the complex political problem of religious extremism and militancy, as Pakistan’s case graphically illustrates, is more likely to exacerbate the turmoil. Like all wars, this war is too serious a business to be left to generals –or to one general in Pakistan.

Najum Mushtaq is a journalist and contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.