With a new National Intelligence Estimate warning that al Qaeda has found safe haven in Pakistan, the political attack on President Bush practically writes itself: He “took his eye off the ball” in the country where Osama bin Laden is almost certainly hiding, because he was distracted by the Iraq war.
This is an easy but unpersuasive sound bite. The problems in the tribal areas of western Pakistan are not susceptible to a large-scale American military solution, and are just as difficult whether we have 160,000 troops in Iraq or none at all. Al Qaeda has been able to build a haven in Pakistan not because of the Iraq war, but because of an ill-advised ceasefire deal that Gen. Pervez Musharraf cut with tribal leaders in 2006. The tribal areas have never been ruled by the central government in Islamabad, and are a nettlesome problem for Musharraf, who has been entirely willing to kill and capture militants in the settled areas of Pakistan. His deal with the tribes — according to which the Pakistani army ceased its military operations in exchange for a promise that militants would stop incursions into Afghanistan — was fatally flawed from the beginning. Among other things, it lacked effective enforcement measures, and it has now unquestionably failed.
American officials have been beating a trail to Islamabad to tell Musharraf this, but he seems finally to be reaching the conclusion himself. The battle of the Red Mosque and the suicide attacks around the country prove that Islamic militancy will not be neatly limited to the tribal areas, where it would be Afghanistan and America’s problem. Musharraf has been slow in coming to this realization, and it’s a shame that we have to rely on him at all. But an American occupation of western Pakistan — which would be necessary to attempt to root out al Qaeda — is out of the question. The political backlash it would create might topple Musharraf and plunge the country into chaos. There are military options short of occupation available to us, and we should (quietly) make sure Musharraf knows that we are considering them. He will then feel additional pressure to act, lest we take matters into our own hands.
Musharraf must begin once again to meet al Qaeda’s challenge with force of arms. The Pakistani military won’t relish this task; it remembers the hard combat that prompted the pullback-and-ceasefire deal in the first place. In addition to pushing Musharraf behind the scenes, the U.S. will have to strive to augment his capabilities. That means working with Pakistani security forces to increase their operational capacities in the tribal areas; helping beef up the Frontier Corps, a federal paramilitary force operating there; and giving Musharraf more resources in a battle for hearts and minds that will require pouring economic aid into the tribal areas. (We have already pledged $150 million annually for the next five years.) Only after the tribesmen have seen that a secular, Western-oriented leader has brought security and relative prosperity will their loyalties shift.
Thanks to his ham-handed sacking of the chief justice of the country’s supreme court, these have been rocky days for Musharraf, but he remains the best of the available alternatives. It’s not that full-fledged democracy in Pakistan would deliver the reins of power to extremists. The Pakistani population is far more moderate than, say, the Palestinians, who elected Hamas. According to the best estimates, Islamist parties would win only 5 percent of the vote if a fair election were held today. But whether the Pakistani military formally rules the country or not, it will remain the dominant force for the immediate future. Only it can crack down on the Islamists and provide the security from which a genuinely liberal political culture might someday spring. The question is whether it will ally itself with the Islamists or the reformers.
Its leaders are a mix of secularist reformers, Taliban sympathizers, and pragmatists who, wary that the U.S. is a fickle ally, hedge their bets by maintaining ties with extremists. What the U.S. should hope for is an empowerment of the reformers, and an alliance between them and the progressive secular parties (such as Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party). Rumors of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance in advance of the next elections — scheduled for this fall — may not be true, but this is the type of arrangement we should encourage. If the Pakistani military believes that the U.S. is in the region to stay, and will be generous with its aid dollars, it is more likely to forge ties with progressives. That’s why, if the Democrats succeed in forcing American defeat in Iraq (thus creating doubt about our willingness to honor our commitments and alliances), we are likely to hear much more bad news out of Islamabad. This would be a vastly greater blow to our security than President Bush’s alleged failure to keep his eye on the ball.