Time for Musharraf to go

by Ramesh Thakur

Waterloo, ONTARIO — For outsiders as for Pakistanis, the choice is between worse and worst: a militantly Islamic, 160 million strong, nuclear-armed failed state at the strategic crossroads of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Pakistan’s fate has rested historically on the three A’s: Allah, the army and America. Recently, President Pervez Musharraf has been triangulated ever more tightly by the jihadists, Islamists and judiciary.

Pakistan was an artificial creation carved out of British India with mass bloodshed. Its founding ideology of Islam was unable to hold the country together as Bangladesh became independent, and has proven incapable to date of uniting the various clans and tribes into one cohesive nation. Civilian governments alternated with military and competed with each other in the race to the bottom of incompetence and corruption.

Enmity with India gave the military the alibi to establish ascendancy over all affairs of the nation and also explains the third enduring force of Pakistani politics.

The emotional parity with India could not have been sustained without alliance with the United States and later China, which also allowed Pakistan to develop its nuclear and missile programs. In the 1980s Saudi financing and American arms and training built up the mujahedin as a potent force to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Over time this battle-hardened jihadist army, including Osama bin Laden, exported terror in common cause with Islamist struggles all over the world.

The Saudi connection led to a spurt of Islamic religious schools spewing hatred against Jews, Christians and Hindus with equal venom. By the end of the last century the epicenter of international terrorism had shifted to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

9/11 had deep Pakistani and Saudi connections. But Bush lashed out at Iraq in a disastrous distraction from the real enemy al-Qaida and the real theater of war Afghanistan. He also negated his own eloquent analysis of the threats that had multiplied and intensified by America coddling dictators and failing to champion democracy and freedoms in a triumph of short-term expediency over long-term strategic vision.

The result is everyone’s worst nightmare coming ever closer to reality in Pakistan. Both Benazir Bhutto, possibly the most popular politician in Pakistan today, and Nawaz Sharif, the last legally elected leader, have warned of the perils of backing a duplicitous and unreliable Musharraf.

Washington, having invested so heavily in him (over $10 billion aid since 2001), is seen as Musharraf’s helper against the people: Pakistan has one of the staunchest anti-U.S. images in the world. Washington never confronted the core of his duplicity. If Musharraf successfully eliminated the threat of Islamists, his utility to Washington and the fear of the alternative would disappear. If he failed to show any tangible progress, he would be toppled. So he has played both ends against the middle brilliantly.

But that meant that the policy contradictions ripened and threatened to burst. The Islamists survived, regrouped, built up their base and launched more frequent raids across the border in Afghanistan but also deep into the heart of Pakistan itself, culminating in the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July.

To appease an increasingly restive Washington, Musharraf cracked down on the Islamists harder and entered into power-sharing talks with Bhutto, which only intensified their hatred of him as America’s stooge. Cornered by an increasingly assertive judiciary, he sacked the chief justice but was forced to back down in the face of a revolt by the legal profession and international pressure. The general sentiment across Pakistan in recent weeks has been that Musharraf was on his last legs, and this threatened to become a self-fulfilling analysis.

True to his commando instincts, Musharraf has struck, declaring a state of emergency, suspending the constitution, dismissing the chief justice, putting him under house arrest and jailing a swath of political opponents. The justification is saving the nation from its many enemies within and without. Even the most naive and gullible are unlikely to swallow this. Such last-gasp efforts may prolong but will not escape the inevitable.

Pakistan has slowly but surely descended into the failed state syndrome where the Quran and Kalashnikov culture reign supreme. A strange alliance of liberals and radicals may ensue and prove as combustible as it did in toppling the shah of Iran in 1979.

Strong and sustained international pressure and effort — stick followed by carrots — will be needed. An unstable, volatile, radicalized and nuclear-armed Pakistan is in no one’s interest.

Musharraf is a problem, with a track record to prove it. He has to go. That must be followed by building the institutions of good governance that are mutually reinforcing and resilient. This includes watchdogs that can catch violations of and enforce anticorruption laws.

Alleged incompatibility of Islam with democratic good governance is nonsense and given the lie in next door India (as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey). The army belongs in the barracks. Putting it back there would be the start to ending Pakistan’s long nightmare. Keeping it there would constitute a solution

Ramesh Thakur is a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.