Bill Roggio cites an important assessment of the situation in Swat, and Pakistan as a whole, from Syed Saleem Shahzad in the Asia Times. Shahzad apparently wants to see Pakistan opt out of the war on terror, and for that reason I think he is trying too hard to minimize the significance of the army’s offensive in Swat. “Merely” driving the Taliban out of Swat (which appears to have happened), as opposed to compelling the Taliban’s surrender, could be very meaningful, depending on how the army follows up.
But Shahzad’s deeper point is that, with Musharraf out of uniform, the army will not follow up, and I much fear that Shahzad is right about this. If so, the consensus in the West against Musharraf and in favor of Pakistani “democracy” will actually backfire against the war on terror. Shahzad is saying what few Westerners want to concede — more “democracy” in Pakistan means less war on terror. (Of course here we are talking about “democracy” in the superficial sense of mere elections, rather than genuine liberal democracy. But that critical distinction is all-too-frequently ignored.) Shahzad’s logic, unfortunately, is compelling, because the Pakistani people deeply sympathize with Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and associated jihadi groups. When popular will itself is largely illiberal and pro-Islamist, government driven by popular will means more terrorism, not less.
Here are some Shahzad’s key points:
Washington had reasoned that changing horses in midstream by pressing for a new civilian government would not affect the “war on terror”. But Pakistan has its own dynamics and the US plan for a resurgence of “liberal democratic forces” in January’s elections is highly unlikely to materialize. Instead, the conservative Sharif has emerged as the most popular leader in the country, not former premier Benazir Bhutto, the darling of Washington….
The most interesting case is that of former information minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed, once a close aide of Musharraf, who refuses to say a single word in favor of the president and who privately says that siding with the “war on terror” and with Musharraf means humiliating defeat in January’s elections. Sharif has already publicly said that the battle against militancy will not be conducted in such a manner that it could jeopardize Pakistan’s stability.
According to the latest reports, Sharif is planning to boycott the upcoming elections. This could mean a Bhutto government installed under the cloud of a boycotted election. The danger is that Sharif would then lead the public in the streets against the U.S.-backed duo of Musharraf and Bhutto, making a particular point of attacking them both as toadies of America’s war on terror. Given popular sentiment in Pakistan (which has little to do with genuine liberal democracy), Sharif could take power on a platform that sharply distanced Pakistan from the United States. Even if Sharif takes a less disruptive “non-street” strategy, broader public support for his more Islamist-friendly stance is likely to bring him to power eventually.
Driving the Taliban out of Swat (and something like that may well be happening) was Musharraf’s bid to shore up U.S. support. It could prove meaningful if the army follows up by holding the territory and winning back the locals. But if Shahzad is right about the implications of Musharraf’s departure from the army, and the consequences of “democracy” (in the superficial sense of mere elections), then the war on terror is in serious trouble.
And note that the Asia Times has just published yet another in-depth analysis of Pakistani politics, this one by former Indian diplomat, M. K. Bhadrakumar, which leads to the same conclusion: Sharif’s return is a Saudi move to capitalize on pro-Islamist sentiment in Pakistan. Democracy (in the superficial sense of mere elections) in Pakistan will mean the ascendence of Sharif, and the end of even such participation in the war on terror as we’ve seen under Musharraf.