Whether President Musharraf ought to have declared a state of emergency is open to debate. That Pakistan has in fact been in a state of emergency for some time is not. Al Qaeda has controlled the mountainous northern tribal region of Waziristan for more than a year, and has expanded its reach across other tribal regions, and even into cities, over that time. Bin Laden and his Taliban allies are waging a campaign of suicide bombings aimed at overthrowing the government and turning Pakistan into a nuclear-armed Al Qeadastan. The army’s new-found determination to take back control of the tribal regions has badly bogged down. Pro-democratic forces have done their best to dislodge Musharraf’s military rule, but as risk of turning the country over to the increasingly popular Islamists.
The power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto was a way to square the circle–keeping the military in power, while also creating a semblance of democracy and building a domestic coalition that might stand up to Islamist terror. Yet this tenuous strategy has fallen apart, undermined by the mutual suspicions of Bhutto and the military, but also by the suicide bombing campaign of the Islamists and their allies in Pakistan’s intelligence service.
There is no easy solution to the Pakistan problem. Democratically elected civilian governments In Pakistan are historically corrupt, ineffective, and frequently give way to military rule. Liberal and modernizing forces in Pakistan reject Musharraf’s rule, and the military’s growing domination of the civilian economy. Yet Pakistan’s liberals are naive about the growing appeal of Islamism to the populace as a whole. They ague that military rule actually strengthens the Islamists, but that argument is unconvincing.
Islamism has been growing in Pakistan for years, and was spreading even before Pakistan’s intelligence agencies seized upon it as a tool to battle the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Benazir Bhutto’s father was overthrown and executed in 1979 by a military government with Islamist sympathies. The sad fact of the matter is that the majority of Pakistan’s population would like to see a move toward rule by Islamic law–the central platform of the Taliban, and sympathy for bin Laden and other jihadist groups is more widespread than sympathy for either Musharraf or for liberalism.
It’s true that American pressure on Musharraf (and Bhutto) to go after al Qeada’s newly established sanctuary in the tribal regions has helped to undercut the popularity of the regime. Yet American influence has not been decisive in creating these problems, nor will it be decisive in solving them. Musharraf’s vision of Pakistan has never been Islamist, and Bhutto’s opposition to the Islamists (whose sympathizers executed her father) is genuine.
The deeper problem is that Islamism actually appeals to a broad population of Muslims struggling with the pressures of modernization. We are not omnipotent. A huge section of Pakistan’s public is sympathetic to Islamism in general, and even specifically to Osama bin Laden. Our aid and influence can help to tip the balance in favor of the genuinely non-Islamist forces that exist in Pakistan, but we cannot make half the country disappear. The population is not with us, and there is only so much we can do, for good or ill, to change that. We can influence events in important ways, but we cannot fully control them.
Pakistan’s internal war will continue. Pro-democratic forces will chafe against emergency rule. Perhaps there will be mass protests. At the same time, the war between al Qaeda and the Taliban, on one hand, and Musharraf’s military, on the other, will heat up. The fate of the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation hangs in the balance, and so, therefore, does ours. (For more, see “While Pakistan Burns,” by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.