“Pakistan…compared to what?” That is the question lurking beneath our struggle to make sense of unfolding events in this troubled country. In their mind’s eye, many commentators hold onto the hopeful image of a democratic Pakistan, unified by a cross-party consensus against the Islamists, fully engaged in the war on terror. If that vision is what you’re comparing to the current mess, you’ll be highly critical of General Musharraf. By imposing a state of emergency, jailing political opponents, and shutting down independent media, Musharraf would seem to have weakened and isolated himself, undermined chances for a democratically forged antiterrorist consensus, and even pushed his democratic opponents together with the Islamists into some sort of united opposition.
But what if the image of a democratic and antiterrorist Pakistan is a pipedream? What if the Pakistani people as a whole do not support the war on terror — and even admire the jihadists? What if the real alternative to the present mess is the catastrophe of a fractured and warring army, nuclear materials finding their way to Osama bin Laden, or even a full-scale Islamist takeover? If that’s what you’re comparing to the current mess, you’ll be inclined to think we have little choice but to support Musharraf, even as we help patch up a fractured political situation as best we can.
So which is it? Has Musharraf selfishly destroyed the chances for a democratic and antiterrorist solution in Pakistan, or has he simply taken the least-bad way out of a dangerously deteriorating national situation? There’s truth in both perspectives. Still, despite the overwhelming press bias toward the former view, the notion that Musharraf has somehow blocked an emerging democratic consensus against terror is largely a fantasy. The United States is continually frustrated by Musharraf’s half-hearted fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. But what if Musharraf’s maddeningly on-again/off-again offensives against the terrorists are actually better than the available alternatives? What if keeping the Pakistan’s antiterrorism glass at least half-full is as good as it is realistically going to get?
One of our great disadvantages in dealing with Pakistan is the fact that Americans speak English. You might think sharing a common language with Pakistan’s elite would allow us to make better sense of developments in that distant land. So far, the opposite is true. That’s because the Pakistani elite not only knows English, they understand the West — whereas we in the West understand very little about Pakistan. This allows select Pakistani politicians and analysts to manipulate American reporters and readers with false promises of democracy and campaigns against terrorism.
Consider Jemima Khan, ex-wife of jailed cricket star and Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan. Musharraf’s jailing of this charismatic sports celebrity is one of the most cringe-inducing images of the current emergency. And certainly, we can and should hope for a return to some sort of political normalcy.
Yet Khan’s glamorous ex-wife, Jemima, now the leader of Britain’s anti-Musharraf protests, is adept at manipulating her Western readers. Her latest oped, “The Denial of Liberty,” is full of tributes to Musharraf’s “progressive, secular-minded” opponents. According to Jemima Khan, Musharraf merely uses the specter of the Taliban to stir up Western fears. The real solution to the Islamist problem, says Kahn, is free and fair elections, which would create “a secular democratic government…the very people the West needs to converse with to avoid [the] doomsday scenario” of nuclear-armed Islamists.
Sounds like Jemima Khan is promising a full-scale attack on the Taliban. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Although Jemima Khan carefully hides the full story from her Western readers, her ex-husband, Imran Khan, actually wants to break with the United States, withdraw Pakistan’s army from the tribal areas, abandon patrols on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and force America and NATO to withdraw from Afghanistan altogether. Like Jemima, Imran Khan salts his own policy recommendations with paeans to democracy and the need to build a “free society.” But what Khan means by a “free” society is a nation where Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are free to supervise their worldwide campaign of terror. What Jemima Khan never quite says about all those “progressive” and “secular-minded” folks she wants to see in power is that their “progressive” theory of how to keep nukes out of bin Laden’s hands is to just leave Osama and his friends alone.
While Jemima Khan is busy double-talking the Brits, Pervez Hoodbhoy is one of a small group of Pakistani analysts exercising outsized influence over America’s reporters. Hoodbhoy’s recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Pakistan’s problems start at the top,” is a study in evasion and contradiction. On the one hand, in suitably sanitized language, Hoodbhoy acknowledges the reasons why Musharraf has been unable to mount a systematic assault on the Islamists. Simply put, the Pakistani public doesn’t want Musharraf to attack, because they support and admire the terrorists. Yet, having noted this, Hoodbhoy concludes that “only a freely chosen representative government can win public support for taking on the Taliban.” Really? Given what Hoodbhoy has told us about public sentiment in Pakistan, shouldn’t we believe that elections will produce a boot-out-America strategy instead? While Benazir Bhutto has pledged to fight the Islamists, even Hoodbhoy doubts that she will be able to follow through on those promises.
In short, Musharraf’s domestic opponents are manipulating the West into believing that Musharraf’s overthrow means the end of Osama and the Taliban. In fact, an end to Musharraf likely means an end to pressure on the Islamists. What’s more, Pakistan’s entire history is filled with so-called democratic leaders bowing to the army, succumbing to corruption, circumventing the law, and assuming authoritarian powers. Pakistan’s political intellectuals know English, and know how to tug at American heartstrings with hymns to democracy. Yet many of these same intellectuals have nothing but contempt for America and our war on terror, and lack the ability and/or intention to turn Pakistan into either an authentically liberal democracy, or a bulwark against the Islamists.
Offensive in Swat
After Musharraf declared an emergency, his opponents claimed that Musharraf was only using the Islamist insurgency as an excuse. After all, instead of sending the army to fight terrorists up in the tribal regions, Musharraf was ordering his troops to arrest political opponents in Pakistan’s cities. Yet contrary to the predictions of his opponents, Musharraf has just launched a significant offensive against the Islamists in Swat. The aim is to deprive Osama and his Taliban allies of their latest territorial conquest.