By Michael Krepon – Pakistan’s sorrows continue to mount. The “good news” talking points of recent Pakistani visitors to Washington linked to the government – a vibrant media, a vigorous judiciary, a rising stock market, and an impending partnership between General Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto – have turned to dust with Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule. Greater difficulties lie ahead, with suicide bombers awaiting opportunities to make more mayhem.
The slender hope of a transitional partnership between Musharraf and the political center has floundered. The die is increasingly cast between Musharraf and his narrowing circle of backers and the large ranks of those who believe his service to Pakistan is effectively over.
The Bush administration and a few highly respected voices in Pakistan remain unwilling to accept what they believe to be a stark choice between pre- and post-Musharraf Pakistan. The best reason for caution is the fear of the unknown, which may be worse than what we know too well. But the accumulation of political events may well have passed the point where familiar Pakistani and US techniques of political management and manipulation can succeed. These techniques have, after all, led to the current impasse; their continued employment could now accelerate the very trends that are most worrisome within the country, even if they are sufficient to keep Musharraf in power.
What would be worse for Pakistan and the United States: If Musharraf stays or if he goes? With great hesitation, I have come to the following conclusions: First, the political trends lines within Pakistan are likely to grow worse the longer Musharraf remains in any position of leadership. Second, the corporate interests of the Pakistan Army with respect to counter-terrorism, control of the country’s nuclear assets, and in handling troubled ties with Washington are unlikely to change appreciably if or when Musharraf goes. And third, the longer Musharraf stays, the greater the difficulties Washington can expect on all three fronts.
The dilemmas associated with these conclusions are unavoidable after the wreckage of Musharraf’s endgame to assure himself another term as President. Pakistan’s domestic politics have become so abnormal that modest remedies now seem insufficient while near-term solutions appear improbable. Among the latter is the goal of free and fair national elections in January — a timeframe that virtually prohibits sufficient political normalization to make the results anything but ephemeral. Another rigged national election would add even more salt to Pakistan’s open wounds.
US insistence on prompt national elections seems to be predicated on the false, but longstanding assumption that Musharraf remains key to holding the country together in the face of growing centrifugal tendencies. Even worse dilemmas are likely to result by staying the present course of demanding quick national elections and brokering a transition strategy that includes Musharraf.
Instead, I respectfully submit that a new transition strategy needs to be considered, one that centers on a truly impartial caretaker government to prepare for national elections that take place in a time frame whereby all political leaders in exile can return home, political activity can be carried out on a level playing field, and in which an independent judiciary and national election commission can be reconstituted to monitor the results.
This conclusion is based on the analysis that the longer Musharraf wears either of his two hats, the longer it will take for Pakistan to hold sufficiently credible elections upon which a semblance of political normalcy can resume. Being Army Chief is an important, full-time job. Pakistan has not had a full-time Chief for the past eight years. The sooner Musharraf hands this baton to his Vice Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kiyani, the better.
I believe that by declaring a state of emergency to hold onto his second hat as President, Mushrraf has forfeited this post, as well. Too much mayhem and too many broken promises have occurred on Musharraf’s watch for him to be a successful transitional figure, let alone a stabilizing force in the normalization of Pakistani politics.
With or without Musharraf, the corporate interests of the Pakistan Army remain the same: The nation’s well-being now depends on countering internal threats that are carving out autonomous zones in the tribal belt along the Afghan border, in portions of the Northwest Frontier Province, and in mosque complexes in Pakistan’s major cities. Suicide attacks have been carried out against military and political leaders, army commando, air force, and navy complexes. Islamic extremism has devolved from a device used to kick the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and to inflict pain on India to a clear threat to Pakistan’s future.
Whether Musharraf stays or goes, this fact of life will remain unchanged. It is reasonable to assume that the senior officer corps that Musharraf has hand-picked shares his basic outlook on matters of crucial importance to the state. They are also likely to share his limitations in dealing with internal security problems, as well as his limitations in partnering with the United States to counter the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The Vice Chief of Army Staff and the Corps Commanders Musharraf has carefully chosen surely understand the strategic imperative of trying to maintain working ties with Washington. The loss of this relationship would be catastrophic to both partners. They should also understand the strategic necessity of keeping Pakistan’s relations with India on an even keel while the Afghan border is so volatile.
No national assets mean more to Pakistan’s military leaders than the country’s holdings of nuclear weapons. A new system of security has been instituted after the embarrassments of A.Q. Khan’s dealings became known. This system is now being stressed. Weapons that remain in central storage locations are likely to be as safe as anything of value within the country – if the security system is sufficiently robust to stop insider threats. Weapons that have been removed from central storage will necessarily have less protection.
The United States and Pakistan have been working together to help increase security and to promote best practices regarding nuclear risk-reduction measures. In a small way, the Stimson Center has tried to help in this effort. Stimson has been honored to host eight visiting fellows from the Strategic Plans Division at Joint Staff Headquarters and two visiting fellows from the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority. Our visiting fellows have been conscientious, hard working, and very focused on explaining their mission to reduce nuclear dangers and to prevent acts of nuclear terrorism. There is still much work to be done, and this work becomes harder the longer the crisis of political legitimacy in Pakistan continues.
Personalities change, but national interests do not – at least unless and until Pakistan passes the point of no return in its dealings with the United States. That point has not yet been reached – but it comes closer the longer the Bush administration equates Pakistan’s future with Musharraf’s hold on power.