ISLAMABAD — Recent threats by the Bush administration to cut off billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan have sparked panic in government circles. Likewise, according to the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, military strikes by the United States aimed at al-Qaida and Taliban havens inside Pakistan’s tribal areas would destabilize Pakistan and “possibly could bring (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) down.” But how worried should the Pakistani authorities really be in the face of growing U.S. pressure to root out Islamic militants?
Occasional frustrations notwithstanding, it is, in fact, unlikely that the U.S. will turn against a faithful — and dependent — ally, especially one whose leader enjoys cordial personal relations with Bush. Nor, due to a lack of organized opposition, will public anger at Musharraf’s pro-U.S. policy destabilize his regime. Indeed, the wily president does not merely survive crisis after crisis, but has thrived in power.
How does he do it? The answer lies in a finely honed strategy, perfected over years, that juggles U.S. demands and the interests of local intelligence chiefs, Europe’s mullahs, tribal leaders, venal politicians and a host of fortune seekers. Webs of intrigue and murky players obscure details, but the priorities are unmistakable.
First, American impatience must be held in check. Pakistan is expected to deliver results on al-Qaida and the Taliban. However, the pot is not to be emptied all at once. For example, when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Islamabad in early March, threatening an aid cut and direct U.S. action against Islamic militants, his message was not lost. Shortly before his unmarked aircraft landed, Pakistan announced the capture in Quetta of Mullah Obaidullah, deputy to the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Omar. Obaidullah carried a $1 million reward and was the most senior Taliban captured since November 2001.
Obaidullah’s capture — carried out reluctantly — underscores the Pakistan military’s ambiguous relationship with the Taliban. Despite more than 700 Pakistani combat deaths, many in Musharraf’s army wish to retain the Taliban as quasi-allies who — when the Americans leave Afghanistan someday — will give Pakistan the “strategic depth” it needs against India. Thus, to the chagrin of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, Quetta remains a hub of Taliban opposition to his regime.
A second aspect of Musharraf’s strategy is to create mutually beneficial relations with Islamists. This is a tricky business. Musharraf cannot permit the mullahs to become too strong. The mullahs, on the other hand, consider Musharraf an agent of the great Satan, America, and thus a traitor to Islam.
Nevertheless, Musharraf’s men have skillfully fractured the main Islamic opposition party, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, with bribes, blackmail and internal dissension fomented by agent provocateurs. As part of the tradeoff, terrorist leaders who are officially under house arrest — like Maulana Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed — remain able to open offices, address rallies and preach jihad freely.
Such appeasement carries a price. This is clear in Islamabad, where over the past two months, Kalashnikov-toting students have openly challenged the state, following a government order for the demolition of dozens of illegally built mosques and seminaries. Unnerved by the wild-eyed students, the government faltered, then surrendered. In a dramatic reversal, Musharraf’s minister of religious affairs, the son of former dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, promised to rebuild damaged mosques and even symbolically laid the first stone at one construction site.
The third element of Musharraf’s strategy is more positive: He knows that he must do some good — and also be seen doing it. This is crucial for his image as a newly emerged world leader, promising moderate Islam in an ocean of extremism.
Some of Musharraf’s achievements are significant.
Relations with India have improved, the Kashmir insurgency supported by Pakistan has been scaled back, a women’s protection bill was passed in the teeth of Islamic opposition and a virulent public school curriculum that emphasized jihad and martyrdom has been toned down.
But men who live by the gun are willing to die by the gun, and Musharraf is not taking chances. He knows that the real threat to his power — and his life — comes from within his constituency, the military. As a result, he has become obsessed with micromanaging everything from troop movements and special events to postings and promotions, all of which require his personal stamp of approval.
Hardline Islamists, favored previously, are now out, and soldiers charged with mutiny have received the death penalty.
Although this has further deepened pro- and anti-U.S. divisions within the army, among both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, Musharraf clearly expects to remain president well beyond the October 2007 elections, as well as to extend further his term of leadership of the army. To achieve this end, whatever needs to be done will be done; principles and rules are elastic.
One might have expected the Americans to know better than to bet all on a man who might be gone tomorrow. But, beyond pumping in dollars and supporting Musharraf and his military, the U.S. appears clueless in dealing with Pakistan and its problems of social development. With the defeat of al-Qaida and the Taliban as America’s only visible goal, it is no surprise that the U.S. remains enormously unpopular among Pakistanis, forcing Musharraf to maintain his perilous balancing act.