Global Policy Forum

A Change of US Plan for Pakistan


By M K Bhadrakumar*

Asia Times
July 25, 2007

Three top-ranking US officials spoke in unison over the weekend, hinting at direct US military strikes inside Pakistan - White House spokesman Tony Snow, White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend, and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell.

The US media have since carried reports quoting unnamed sources that the White House is already weighing "options" involving "deniable covert action" by US special forces inside Pakistan; US air strikes against "known terrorist compounds" in Pakistan's tribal areas; or a large-scale ground offensive across the border from Afghanistan. Yet twice within the week before these White House officials spoke, assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher gave an altogether different assessment of the nature of the strife in Pakistan's tribal areas, and Washington's approach to it. On July 12, Boucher testified before Congress and on July 17 he gave a detailed press briefing in Washington.

Contradictory assessments

In his congressional testimony, Boucher viewed the situation in Pakistan with a high degree of equanimity. He repeatedly underlined the US administration's confidence in Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's handling of the complicated politico-security situation in Pakistan's tribal areas. Boucher spoke optimistically about Musharraf's "comprehensive strategy to combat terrorists and extremists". Boucher cited how the Pakistani government's strategy was already boosting the "capacity and will of local tribes to resist and expel violent extremists in their midst, achieving successes". He concluded his testimony on July 12 by saying, "Pakistani security operations in the tribal areas are disrupting terrorist activities in an area where terrorists previously felt secure."

In his briefing on July 17, Boucher was even more forthright in endorsing Musharraf's resolve and capacity to act against terrorism. "The first thing I would say is the Pakistani government is dealing decisively with the problems ... the government of Pakistan is prepared to move, to act against dangerous militancy that has come to infect various areas in parts of Pakistani society." He viewed the so-called Waziristan agreement not as an aberration but as in essence a well-intentioned move on Musharraf's part that somehow didn't work. This peace agreement, now in tatters, saw the Pakistani military withdraw from the tribal areas in return for the people there stopping cross-border activity into Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Boucher attributed the recent spurt in extremist violence in Pakistan as a natural reaction to Musharraf's six-month-old crackdown on militancy rather than as a phenomenon of resurgence by terrorists. He didn't display any concern as such about an al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan's tribal agencies. Boucher categorically ruled out the need for any direct US military involvement. He said, "That'll be for the Pakistani government to decide how to go about it militarily ... and we'll obviously work with them." Boucher also asked rhetorically, "Is he [Musharraf] capable of doing this without the United States? The answer is yes, but it's not a question that's really going to arise, because he's going to have our support."

The most interesting part of Boucher's presentation was that, unlike the White House officials named above, he believes the forces of militancy and extremism operating in Pakistan's tribal agencies are increasingly on the run in the face of relentless pressure from Pakistani security forces. And he drew satisfaction that Pakistani Taliban are reeling under pressure too.

In short, what we find is that within 48 hours, the pendulum in Washington swung to the other extreme, culminating in the stunning statement by Snow on Thursday, "We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets" within Pakistan. But then Snow also shifted his stance rather abruptly. On July 17, he had said, "If you talk - when you talk about going in there [Pakistan's tribal areas], you don't blithely go into another nation and conduct operations ... we are working with a sovereign nation which is an ally with us, in this particular case. And when it comes to Pakistan, the United States has, in fact, been continuously working with President Musharraf, and we're going to do what we can to try to strengthen his hand in whatever he needs." The next day, Snow followed up by giving details of how the United States proposed to "strengthen" Musharraf's hands - by committing US$750 million over a five-year period for the economic development of Pakistan's tribal areas and by providing $300 million a year in foreign military financing to support Pakistan's Frontier Corps.

Snow repeated that the US couldn't get directly involved militarily in curbing militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas. He said, "Pakistan is a sovereign government, and Pervez Musharraf is a man who, as president of Pakistan, has an obligation and a challenge to do what he thinks is going to be most effective in securing peace within his own land ..." Evidently, the White House spokesman came under instructions to raise the ante overnight by hinting at direct US military involvement in Pakistan's tribal areas. What changed on the ground to warrant such a dramatic shift in White House thinking? The only new factor was that Musharraf's standing within Pakistan became highly precarious after the Supreme Court judgment in Islamabad last Friday to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

Bhutto's travails

All of a sudden it began to look that Washington's best-laid plans to work out a "democratic transition" involving Musharraf and exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had gone awry. Boucher had said as recently as July 17, "I think it was noteworthy that Benazir Bhutto expressed her support for the action of the Red Mosque ... So there is sort of a logical, moderate center to Pakistani politics that we hope we can help - can emerge through a democratic election." Boucher was referring to the Pakistani military's recent storming of the radical Lal Masjid.

The Supreme Court verdict dramatically altered the political equations within Pakistan. For one thing, Bhutto has begun developing cold feet about Musharraf's staying power. At the very least, she is marking time, waiting and watching the rapidly developing flow of events. She has since told the London Sunday Times that Musharraf "has lost his moral authority. His popularity rates are down, and it would be very unpopular if we saved him. We would lose votes by being associated with him."

As an experienced politician, Bhutto seems to have done her homework. Despite her anxiety to preserve the US administration's newfound goodwill toward her (after keeping her at arm's length in recent years), Bhutto's instincts of political survival are getting the better of her. She sizes up that in the downstream, an assertive judiciary may now well proceed in the coming weeks to frustrate Musharraf's plans to get elected for a second time by the same Parliament and to serve both as president and chief of army staff. So Bhutto must be pondering: What is the use of a political deal even if Washington were to underwrite one? She must be nervous that the virulently anti-Musharraf front comprising opposition parties led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in alliance with the religious parties and most minor parties may already be stealing a march over her in Pakistani public opinion. She cut a sorry figure by not insisting that Musharraf should step down after the Supreme Court judgement, as many other opposition stalwarts promptly demanded last Friday.

Bhutto knows that the mood of the powerful Deobandi clergy is changing, too. The powerful Wafaqul Madaris - a federation of religious schools - may be showing signs of shedding their aversion to the hurly-burly of politics. Certainly, it now becomes very difficult for Bhutto to mobilize electoral support in Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. It is a matter of time before Sharif will become the leader of a reinstated Pakistan Muslim League (PML) once the time-servers of the PML who gathered around Musharraf begin to scatter.

Sharif is straining to return to Pakistan. Unlike Bhutto, he has no cases pending against him in the Pakistani courts. Therefore, in a fair election, Bhutto would still face an uphill struggle to become prime minister again. The alliance of Punjabi right-wing politicians and the militant clergy would definitely be more than a match, even if she conquered Sindh in alliance with Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Worse still, the alliance may enjoy the tacit support of sizable sections of the security establishment, including rank-and-file soldiers.

The problem is evidently not a straightforward one of the military's intrusive role in Pakistan's national life. It is not as if liberal democracy would ensue once the military withdrew into the barracks, and which would save the country from extremism. As a Pakistani scholar put it, "Islamic parties have learned that they can use the modern notions of elections and democracy as instruments for advancing their Islamic ideological agenda. They are not committed to democracy and constitutionalism as a doctrine for governance and societal organization. Their commitment to democracy is purely instrumental."

Besides, the problem is also that the US support for Musharraf (and Bhutto) is feeding into Pakistan's boiling cauldron of political antagonisms. Clearly, any deal with Musharraf in the present scenario, under perceived US tutelage, will prove to be extremely damaging politically for Bhutto. Also, it seems highly improbable that Musharraf, who is hopelessly isolated politically, is in any position now to announce elections next week - as he must - so that they could be held just in time before his term ends in October.

Politics of fear

Thus Washington suddenly finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. It is no longer a matter of a "moderate center" accruing in Pakistani politics and providing "a basis for the whole society to fight terrorism", to quote Boucher. The immediate concern is, short of an outright army coup, Washington has to figure out how Musharraf's continuance in office can be ensured.

In the present supercharged political climate in Pakistan, the probability is high that a civilian government that takes over power in Islamabad will be highly sensitive about the public attitude with regard to the United States' blatant interference in Pakistan and its perceived hostility toward Muslims worldwide. In short, any abdication by Musharraf or the Pakistan Army from the political scene becomes simply inconceivable for Washington at this juncture. The stakes are very high for US regional policies. Under a representative government formed on the basis of civilian supremacy, US intelligence agencies wouldn't be able to have a free run within Pakistan as they can under Musharraf's acquiescent regime. It is also a virtual certainty that the Pakistani courts would begin to look into the horrific cases of the "disappearance" of hundreds of Pakistanis in security operations involving US intelligence agencies during the course of the "war on terror".

Most critically, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations in Afghanistan may be seriously jeopardized. Boucher virtually told US Congress members on July 12 not to fiddle with Musharraf's regime. He warned: "Much less frequently mentioned is Pakistani cooperation in facilitating the logistical support of the United States and NATO forces deployed in neighboring Afghanistan. Most of our support for coalition forces in Afghanistan passes through Pakistan." Given the interplay of these complex factors, Washington may have to resort to the one available "exit strategy" - imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan. It is not Washington's problem that the survival of Pakistan is in the medium term critically dependent on the restoration of democracy and rule of law. For the present US administration, the priority will be to salvage the war in Afghanistan. It doesn't want to leave a legacy of losing two wars in a row. If the end justifies the means, Washington will not hesitate to engineer a pretext for the imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan.

This is not the first time the White House has invoked Osama bin Laden's name at a critical juncture in its political calendar. President George W Bush resorted to the politics of fear with stunning success during his re-election campaign in 2004. Bush knows that the common American is trapped by a fear of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In the present context, al-Qaeda becomes a "dual-use" fantasy. A series of spectacular air strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, with their brooding mountains, apparently hunting down the near-mythical bin Laden, will surely brush up Bush's image as a man of action in safeguarding "homeland security". On the other hand, it is bound to trigger such mayhem within Pakistan that it becomes eminently logical for the army leadership there to impose emergency rule and postpone elections. And the international community would have no choice but to accept such an outcome.

At this point, Bush can be certain of "bipartisan" support in any action he takes in regard of "homeland security". On a weekend that belonged to Harry Potter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said, "We have the intelligence report, which says al-Qaeda during this administration is stronger than ever. I don't think we should take anything off the table. Wherever we find these evil people, we should go get them."

About the Author: M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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