Two Tracks in Pakistan

The Washington Post

Last month’s election in Pakistan, far from calming the political crisis, has opened a new phase, and the world has a huge stake in the outcome. Pakistan is at the front line of the assault by Islamist radicalism on moderate elements within the Muslim world and on the institutions of the West. But it is far from clear how firm that front is or which direction it will ultimately face. Pakistan is America’s ally in the war on terror, yet a significant part of its people are opposed to that war; Pakistan helped fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, yet part of its western frontier is occupied by al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistan’s choices will have a significant impact on the 160 million Muslims living in India, as well as on the prospects of peace on the subcontinent, which has already erupted into full-scale war on three occasions.

Most critically, Pakistan is a nuclear power. Athwart strategic crossroads and possessing strategic weapons, Pakistan might lose control of both if its institutions are radicalized or deadlocked as a result of internal conflict. A state occupying strategic terrain but incapable of maintaining control over it could turn into the wild card of international diplomacy.

The stakes are generally recognized; the remedy has proved elusive. U.S. policy has been to urge President Pervez Musharraf into forming a coalition government with one or more civilian parties that would then pursue the anti-fundamentalist war in a more coherent and determined manner. That outcome was what the February election was supposed to produce.

The goal was laudable. But the results of the election — as in Gaza — show that theoretical preconceptions do not necessarily provide practical remedies, especially in the short term. The challenge for policymakers arises when vital national security objectives are threatened and no viable democratic framework exists. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, America faced a Pakistan in which Musharraf had taken over less than two years earlier and whose two main political leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both deposed prime ministers, were in exile. In an ideal world, political and security goals would move on parallel tracks. In many cases, though, the tracks, even if parallel, operate by different time scales.

In Europe, the nation and a functioning civil society preceded the formation of democratic institutions. The opposite is the case in the crescent from the border of India to the shores of Africa. In the absence of a civil society, the losers in a political contest have few motives to subordinate their convictions to the general good, since the definition of the “general good” is precisely what is at issue. In such circumstances, democratic pluralism lacks a social basis — especially in states proclaiming the identity of church and state in the name of a universal religion.

Regional conflicts have historically shaped the character of Pakistan’s foreign and domestic policy. In international affairs, Pakistan allied itself with the United States during the Cold War, if with a special perspective. It received American arms as part of the geopolitical conflict with the Soviet Union, even while it perceived India as its principal security concern. Pakistan proved enormously helpful in facilitating the opening of American relations with China, but more to create an additional obligation than to devise a common global strategy.

Though elections were held periodically, they usually reflected regional populist loyalties. Governed by feudal principles, Pakistani parties were organized for no-holds-barred political contests not mitigated by the restraint imposed by a sense of community. Civilian and military governments alternated with each other. No elected government has ever served out its term.

Of the major groupings, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party represented the large landholders of the Sindh province around Karachi, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League the commercial classes of the Punjab. Both parties practiced a rampant populism, with Bhutto leaning to left-wing secularism and Sharif relying more on an appeal to Muslim fundamentalists. The parties’ feudal organization is demonstrated by the fact that, within 48 hours of Bhutto’s assassination in December, her husband, in exile in Dubai after eight years in prison in Pakistan, was appointed de facto head of the PPP. Sharif, who recently returned from exile, had been overthrown in 1999 after what Musharraf, then commander of Pakistan’s armed forces, alleged was a plot to assassinate him that he claimed Sharif was implicated in.

With populism as the dominant method — if required, tinged with anti-Americanism — the temptation to use radical Islamist movements was ever present. In the 1990s, the Bhutto and Sharif governments cooperated with the fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and jihadist groups in Kashmir. The military intelligence service used similar methods when the military controlled the government. A government-tolerated “private” network facilitated nuclear proliferation to a number of rogue states.

In such an environment, the relation between Pakistan’s three feudal-type organizations, the military and the two major political parties, has more of the character of those among Italian city-states during the Renaissance described by Machiavelli than of the party politics of traditional democracies. They have occasionally made temporary alliances — as they appear to be doing now — for tactical purposes, but these have always proved to be preludes to new confrontations, with the military acting as arbiters in the end. The difference between feudal leaders who wear uniforms and those in civilian clothes is in their constituencies, not in their commitment to a pluralistic process as we understand it.

An alliance between Bhutto, whose father was executed by the military, and Musharraf, who has long hated the Bhutto family, was destined to be precarious. It was doomed by the impatience with which it was pursued. The unforgivable atrocity of the Bhutto assassination ended the original design.

At this point, any attempt to manipulate the political process that we have urged is likely to backfire. A wise policy must recognize that the internal structure of Pakistani politics is essentially out of the control of American political decision making. Construction of a centrist coalition is a commendable goal, but the conditions for it can only be nurtured by Pakistani political forces and, in the absence of a center, require patience over a period of time.

The future of Pervez Musharraf will undoubtedly become a major issue, as the coalition that appeared to come together yesterday may seek his removal from office. It is his responsibility as president to manage the consequences of the election. At the same time, it behooves us to remember the valiant support Musharraf gave the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and his confrontation with jihadist fundamentalism at home. Conspicuous American dissociation would only compound our risks in Pakistan — not to mention the message it would send other leaders in the region who are allied with America.

In dealing with the emerging Pakistani leadership, American policy should focus on national security objectives (control of nuclear weapons, counterterrorism cooperation and resistance to Islamist radicalism). Our democratic principles should be clearly conveyed, but we should have learned by now that the evolution of the immediate political process is beyond our reach. Common approaches on the security issues are necessary, including an end of ambiguity toward terrorist enclaves. For most of its history, Pakistani leaders, whether civilian or military, have acted on the principle that good relations with America were in Pakistan’s national interest. A strategic consensus remains imperative. If that effort fails, many countries will be affected, and, perhaps more immediately, Pakistan’s stability should not be viewed as an exclusively American challenge.

A starting point is to reconcile ambivalent American attitudes at home, difficult as that may be during an election campaign. We do not have the choice between national security and democratic evolution. Both are important objectives but may be achievable only on different time scales. The next president will have to face this reality in many places, and we can do him or her a favor by conducting our national debate from that perspective.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.