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Abandon Musharraf? The Debate


Foreign Policy magazine posts dueling op-eds on the question, “Should the U.S. Abandon Pervez Musharraf?” I’m firmly with Daniel Markey on the “No” side. Yesterday, I argued that the return of Nawaz Sharif spells serious trouble for the United States. Sharif has a history of cooperation with Islamist parties, and even came close to making Sharia the law of the land just before Musharraf ousted him in a coup. According to Markey, if Musharraf goes, and an a-political general takes over, Musharraf’s political party (really a wing of Sharif’s old party) will collapse and move back to Sharif. Having combined his current supporters with Musharraf’s voters, Sharif would leave Benazir Bhutto in the dust. And according to Markey:

Having opposed Musharraf from his exile in Saudi Arabia and Britain, Sharif has felt little love from Washington since 9/11. In his desperation to return to power, he has courted the entire spectrum of Pakistan’s political leaders, including the Islamists. His center-right base of support now has a stronger anti-American, anti-Western streak than in the past. Sharif’s constituents have little interest in implementing policies designed to tackle the deeper roots of extremism and militancy in Pakistani society or in building sustainable democratic institutions.

In other words, as I argued yesterday, despite his current rhetoric, designed to manipulate the West, neither Sharif nor his supporters believe in liberal democracy. If you think it’s tough to get Musharraf’s army to fight Islamists in Pakistan’s northwest, wait till Nawaz Sharif takes power. Although Sharif would have only limited ability to command the army, he could potentially link up with Islamist sympathizers in the military to expand his control.  Who knows, Sharif might even try to expand his popular base by openly distancing himself from the army’s U.S. backed efforts against the Islamists. 

Sharif’s return is an example of how a strategy based on elections, in the absence of a genuinely liberal democratic political culture, can backfire. The West is focused on Pakistan’s protesting lawyers, its English language media, and an at least semi-plausible (but in fact overly optimistic) image of Benazir Bhutto. On the other hand, the Saudis understand the traditionalist and/or Islamist leanings of the vast majority of the Pakistani people. Once the West forced Musharraf to bring back Benazir Bhutto (in a plausible effort to bolster the legitimacy of military rule), the Saudis made a point of releasing Sharif. Unfortunately, in a fundamentally illiberal political culture, “democracy” (I use quotes because genuine liberal democracy requires so much more than mere elections) can easily be turned against us.

Markey is right. If we abandon Musharraf, there is a serious risk that Sharif could be the beneficiary, resulting in a much less pro-Western and a much more Islamist-friendly Pakistan. A direct takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban may be unlikely, but control of the country by an increasingly Islamist-leaning mainstream politician like Sharif is all too possible. For now, Musharraf is our best bulwark against that scenario.


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