10 Questions: What About Pakistan?

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This article was originally published on March 2, 2007 by the CBS Evening News. 

Katie Couric on We began the week with Pakistan in the news-and I thought it would be good to end the week explaining a bit more about why.

It’s a country whose leader, General Pervez Musharraf, plays a unique role in supporting America’s war on terror. He’s a critical—but very difficult—ally, buffeted by opposing pressures from his domestic population and from the Bush administration. For insights into this powerhouse of South Asia, we turned to Michael Krepon, a Pakistan specialist and co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. 

1. Vice President Cheney made an unannounced visit to Pakistan this week, along with the deputy director of the CIA, reportedly to push the Pakistanis to crack down harder against terrorists along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. What should they be doing that they’re not now doing?

America’s leverage isn’t great here, because Pakistan has put more troops into this fight, and has taken more casualties, than have NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. The threat of tough sanctions has been used before, and has led to two previous divorces, the last being in 1989, after Pakistan helped boot the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. (The issue back then was Pakistan’s nuclear program). A third divorce could be a tipping point for Pakistan’s future. President Musharraf knows all this, of course. He wants to maintain his ties with the United States, but he can’t be seen as taking dictation from the White House. My sense is that the Government of Pakistan will take some overt actions to assuage US concerns, such as setting up more border posts and increasing the activity level of its troops in this area. I also expect Pakistan to privately increase and improve intelligence cooperation with the United States.

2. President Musharraf made a deal that gave border area tribes more autonomy. Is that helping the al-Qaeda comeback we’re seeing in that area?

The border agreement with the tribal chiefs, or “malliks,” hasn’t been that successful. According to the heads of US intelligence agencies, troubling border crossings have increased three-fold since the deal was struck. But some sort of a deal with tribal elders was necessary as a “Plan B,” because “Plan A”—the Pakistan military’s strong-arm tactics—was very counterproductive. The Government of Pakistan is not ready to junk Plan B, since it feels that the agreement can be improved, and because it needs the support of local chiefs. But Islamabad recognizes that some local chiefs have lost ground to hotheaded religious leaders in some parts of the tribal lands. My hunch is that the Government of Pakistan will come up with a “Plan C” that includes elements of both previous plans. But the jury is certainly out whether Plan C will be successful.

3. How popular is Musharraf domestically? Do Pakistanis embrace the brand of “enlightened moderation” he’s selling?

Musharraf has been in power since 1999, and that’s a long time. Not surprisingly, his popularity is down, and his writ in the tribal lands, while greater than his predecessors, is very limited. His “enlightened moderation” message is exactly right for Pakistan and for the Islamic world, but this message has been tarnished because he insists on keeping the two most popular leaders of the two biggest political parties—Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif—in exile. These leaders come from parties that do not primarily define themselves in religious terms. To hold onto power, Musharraf has instead entered into a shaky alliance with leaders of several smaller religious parties. They, too, are now distancing themselves from him.

4. Musharraf came to power in a military coup, overthrowing a democratic government. Why did that happen, and how stable is his government?

Musharraf as Army Chief was the prime mover of a very risky and unwise military campaign to seize the heights across the Kashmir divide in 1999. The Prime Minister at that time, Nawaz Sharif, was given sketchy briefings about the plan, and gave his consent without asking hard questions of wishing to hear unwelcome answers. This limited war plan, following on the heels of Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, was implemented in the Himalayan heights above an Indian town named Kargil. It turned the international community strongly against Pakistan, which in turn, mandated an embarrassing retreat. Somebody had to take the fall for this mess, and that somebody was the Prime Minister, who completely lost the support of the Army’s senior ranks.  Musharraf has subsequently worn two hats—that of the Army Chief (his real source of power) and that of the President. He has three primary things going for himself politically at this point: (1) He has placed economic development ahead of the Kashmir dispute, which is now closer to a settlement than ever before (but far from easy). Peace with India is popular within Pakistan. (2) Musharraf’s political opposition is having a hard time coalescing, at least for now. And (3) Musharraf has had the strong support of the Bush administration. This third leg of the stool may be getting shaky.

5. Anti-American sentiment runs strong in Pakistan. Why is the United States so unpopular there?

If we feel exasperated with Pakistan, just image how much the Government of Pakistan and its people feel exasperated with the United States. The Iraq war is widely viewed in Pakistan as an anti-Muslim campaign, and President Bush and Vice President Cheney are far less popular than Osama bin Laden. Now many Pakistanis are wondering whether they will be set up as the “fall guy” for Americas’s difficulties along the Afghan border, and they fear that the administration’s moves vis a vis Iran are the prelude to military strikes against another Islamic neighbor. There is virtual unanimity within Pakistan that US air strikes against Iran would be extremely unwise, and that such strikes could destabilize Pakistan.

6. 96% of Pakistanis are Muslim. Is there real concern that Pakistanand its nuclear weaponscould fall into the hands of an extreme Islamist leadership? What could the US do then?

If the Chinese government could maintain control of its nuclear weapons during the Cultural Revolution, Pakistan’s military can also maintain close watch and control over its nuclear crown jewels. Of course, nothing in life can be as certain as death – there are very few taxes in Pakistan – but I believe the odds are still heavily in favor of the military maintaining strict command and control. The wild card here is if the Army splits – not whether the mullahs make a successful revolution. Pakistan has not been a revolutionary state to date, and the mullahs have not made deep inroads in the political life of the country.

7. You’ve spoken regularly to the Pakistani ambassadoras recently as this week. Does he feel impossibly squeezed by both the United States and and domestic politics?

The Pakistani Ambassador, Mahmud Durrani, is an optimist as well as a problem solver. Pakistan is fortunate to have him in Washington. He is well placed to serve as an intermediary and to try to suggest improvements to Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy and tactics.

8. Why are Pakistan and India such rivals, and what is the state of their relationship now? How does that affect American interests in the region?

The situation in Kashmir—a diverse and troubled state the size of West Virginia that has been heavily contested—has never been more promising. This “good news” story is the result of many factors: battle fatigue among Kashmiris; far-sighted initiatives by both the Indian and Pakistani governments, such as allowing trade and transit across the Kashmir divide; the primacy of economics in today’s international relations and the drag of continuing to support jihadi groups after 9/11. For all of these reasons and more, India and Pakistan are within shouting distance of agreeing to the key elements that would govern a settlement. But domestic political opposition in one or both countries could torpedo a settlement.

9. How well has the Bush administration handled its relationship with Pakistan?

As well as might be expected. Pakistan is a pivotal state: if it goes south, the repercussions would be severe. If, on the other hand, Musharraf and his main rivals can agree on basic policies that would reinforce Pakistan’s ambition to be a moderate, progressive Islamic state, this would be huge. One of the difficulties that this and previous administrations face in their South Asian diplomacy is that strong-armed US tactics will backfire in both countries – except if there is a severe crisis. So the best US diplomacy in this region tends to be quiet, not public. This, of course, is easier said than done: If quiet messages go unheeded, then Washington feels that it must up the ante. The recent public statements by America’s civilian and military intelligence leaders about Pakistan being a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are a clear shot across the bow.

10. What would surprise people about Pakistan?

That most of its people reject militant, extremist Islam, and that the country is more stable than most of us think. But this is most definitely not an endorsement for unwise US policies in the region. Every country, including Pakistan, can have a boiling point.




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