What is to become of Pakistan? In the wake of President Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, any number of grim scenarios are imaginable. Before spinning some of them out, consider this true and timely confession from Stephen P. Cohen, one of America’s top Pakistan experts: “I don’t know what’s going to happen….I don’t think any Pakistan expert knows what will happen even tomorrow.”
Cohen nails it. Yet granting the inevitable uncertainties, let me nonetheless venture a guess. I think we face the real possibility of civil war, in the form of a significantly expanded conflict between Musharraf’s army and Pakistan’s Islamist radicals (meaning al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and a variety of local Islamist groups and parties). An extended nation-wide war between the army and the Islamists could theoretically play out even as pro-democracy forces take to the streets to bring Musharraf down. Yet I think a serious battle between the army and the jihadists would likely force Benazir Bhutto and her allies into quiescence.
Rather than ending conclusively, a civil war between the army and the Islamists would most likely drag out indefinitely, or end in a draw around roughly the same battle lines we see today (i.e. with the northwest in the hands of the jihadists). More extreme outcomes are possible — anything from a military victory over the Islamists (perhaps aided by U.S. forces) to an Islamist takeover of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Media analysis so far has tended to underplay, or even openly challenge, the jihadist angle. Consider this piece in The Christian Science Monitor, which claims that, despite Musharraf’s assertions to the contrary, the emergency has little to do with terrorism. Says the Monitor, “The extremists in Pakistan’s border region are not a threat to the solvency of the state, nor is emergency rule likely to change the Army’s fortunes in fighting them.” According to the authorities quoted by the Monitor, rather than adding to the strength of Musharraf’s forces on the ground, all the emergency does is enable him to circumvent Pakistan’s Supreme Court (which was about to declare his reelection invalid). The Monitor calls the emergency an “eerie echo of decades past,” i.e. of the many previous coups that short-circuited Pakistani democracy. And the key question, according to the Monitor, is whether Benazir Bhutto and liberal lawyers can marshal significant public opposition to Musharraf, in which case Pakistan’s army will be compelled, as often before, to remove a discredited dictator and restore at least a modicum of democracy.
Well, things certainly could play out along these lines, but the Monitor here is buying the analysis of Musharraf’s opponents, and something about that analysis doesn’t quite ring true. According to the critics, puffing up the terrorist threat is just Musharraf’s way of duping gullible Americans into supporting him. The truth, these critics say, is that, to the extent that terrorism is a problem, this is a function of the lack of democracy. Give the people a peaceful outlet to vent their grievances, and they will turn away from violence. Musharraf’s opponents insist that the way to staunch the spread of Islamism is to take power away from the army and hand it to a secular middle class capable of transmitting modern and liberal mores to the country as a whole.
Was Musharraf Right?
Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt all this. Granted, Musharraf’s emergency does replay a long-standing Pakistani pattern of anti-democratic military coups. And massive public opposition could, as before, prompt the military to (partially) restore democracy. Yet this well-practiced Pakistani pattern is now playing out in a decidedly novel environment. Pakistan’s government has never faced armed, independent, organized, and territorially based Islamist opposition on today’s scale. That is likely to give Pakistan’s recurring political history a radical new twist. In calmer circumstances, a stable democracy guided by a secular middle-class might have headed off the specter of Islamist radicalism. Today, however, given the size and strength of the Islamist threat, and given the unique social role of Pakistan’s army, a military government may be the only real bulwark against the potential disaster of a nuclear-armed al-Qaedastan.
It would have been better if the power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto had held. If such a deal can still be rescued and genuinely made to work, that would certainly be welcome. Yet contrary to the claim that terrorism was just an excuse, I fear that Musharraf’s invocation of the state’s critical vulnerability was all too valid.
Consider the nature and scale of the Islamist threat. Pakistan’s central government has never exercised direct control over its unruly northwestern tribal regions. As in colonial times, that part of the country has been ruled by tribal law. Even so, following British colonial practice, the tribal regions have been supervised by representatives of the central government (backed by elite military forces) who’ve worked with pliable tribal elders to keep rebellion in check. Today even that system of indirect rule is defunct. Not only have the central government’s agents been expelled from the tribal regions, most traditional tribal elders have been eliminated by a systematic Taliban campaign of assassination. And now jihadist control has pushed beyond the core tribal regions into historically more pliant agricultural districts, and to some extent even into urban areas. There is no precedent for a successful Islamist rebellion on this scale.