The situation in Pakistan right now is disturbingly unstable. I won’t try to summarize events in detail, since they are continually shifting; you can follow developments easily enough by dipping into the constant stream of news stories. But what about America’s underlying interests?
It’s the Nukes
I take my bearings first and foremost from the need to ensure against the loss of nuclear weapons or nuclear material. As I see it, democracy, or any other issue, takes second place to the imperative of safeguarding Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and preventing any portion of it — be it a completed bomb, bomb components, or fissile material — from ending up in Osama bin Laden’s hands. There are Islamist sympathizers in Pakistan’s army, and al Qaeda now makes its home in Pakistan, which means that any crisis in this nuclear-armed state is uniquely dangerous. We are considering war to prevent Iran from developing a few crude nuclear weapons. Pakistan already has a substantial arsenal of anywhere between 55 and 115 nuclear weapons, and it is imperative that we keep those weapons out of terrorist hands.
The two key articles for understanding the problem of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons security are “Trust Us: So, What About Those Nukes?” from The New York Times and “Pakistan Nuclear Security Questioned,” from The Washington Post. The first point to glean from these articles is that the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons depends upon the stability and unity of Pakistan’s military. If the military fragments, weapons or fissile material might be seized by competing factions. Even if the military’s attention is merely distracted by serious internal squabbles, individuals might be able sell or transfer fissile material, technology, or nuclear knowledge to al Qaeda.
Recognizing the potential problem, Musharraf has instituted tight controls over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. These controls are in the hands of Musharraf’s close loyalists. So what happens if Musharraf falls? That is the question, and the problem, that make this crisis so difficult and dangerous. If Musharraf’s loyalists are replaced as guardians of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, do we risk the loss of weapons or fissile material?
One obvious option here is to continue supporting Musharraf. Given the nuclear stakes, we might be justified in subordinating other considerations to the stability of continued control by a united army under Musharraf’s loyalists. I have inclined to that view, as has John Bolton. Unfortunately, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Pakistan raises serious complications for this strategy.
As I noted in my earlier piece, “Al Qaedastan,” Pakistan’s army is the only well-functioning institution in the country. If the army fragments, Pakistan fragments, and security of the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal is lost. While that points toward the need to support the army, the formula, unfortunately, probably works in reverse. If Pakistan fragments, the army fragments. It’s true that the army can maintain coherence even in the face of a certain amount of national confusion. That’s what Pakistan’s army has historically done. Yet, a truly severe civil crisis risks splitting off competing factions within the army itself. Some sections of the military might refuse to put down mass pro-Bhutto demonstrations or widespread civil unrest. And other sections of the army might refuse to take on the Islamists in northwest Pakistan.
So support for a unified army under Musharraf’s command may not work under all circumstances. And we are moving uncomfortably in the direction of those potentially chaotic circumstances. Unfortunately, there is no good alternative to Musharraf. Specifically, Benazir Bhutto, in my view, is by no means necessarily the solution to our Pakistan problem.
The point here is that the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal should be our first priority, and under most circumstances support for Musharraf would be the best way to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If Pakistan moves even closer to the brink of chaos or civil war, however, this strategy may not work. The question would then become, how, in the absence of Musharraf, could the military be kept sufficiently unified to prevent national chaos and a loss of nuclear material or weapons?
A Benazir Solution?
Let’s say events in Pakistan progress to the point at which Musharraf simply has to go. What do we do then? The deceptively simple solution is to support a pro-Western replacement for Musharraf as head of the army. There is already such a replacement in view and no doubt we would support him if Musharraf leaves the scene. But the underlying problem would still be present. If the new head of the military continued emergency rule, the crisis in Pakistan would go on. So if Musharraf goes, the likelihood is that emergency rule would be lifted and the new head of the military would share power with Benazir Bhutto. Is this a solution?
Unfortunately, the Bhutto solution is a lot more problematic than it may look. For one thing, the way the media talks about this whole conflict is fundamentally misleading. Media reports generally pose the question as emergency rule versus the “restoration of democracy” or the “restoration of the constitution.” I suppose that’s a workable shorthand, but the truth of the matter is that politics in Pakistan has never truly operated under what we think of as an effective constitution. Nor has Pakistan ever had real democracy. Not only has the military remained in control behind the scenes throughout almost all of Pakistan’s history, but very few elections have been fair and free. The freest election in Pakistan’s history handed power to Pakistan’s “East Wing” and precipitated the civil war that led to the creation of what is now Bangladesh. Since then, election results have been carefully manipulated.
Benazir Bhutto knows how to say the things Americans want to hear. She talks a good democratic game, and she promises to send the military against Islamist terrorists in the northwest. But it’s hard to take any of these promises very seriously. Benazir Bhutto is famously corrupt, and in fact quite authoritarian. More important, even when Bhutto ruled under “democracy,” she wasn’t really in charge of Pakistan’s military, which built up the country’s nuclear arsenal largely without her knowledge.
So if Bhutto becomes Prime Minister and orders the army to clean out the Islamists in the tribal regions, it is by no means clear that the army will obey her. After all, Musharraf himself is having tremendous difficulty pushing the military to attack. Many of his soldiers already desert rather than fight the Islamists. If Bhutto tries to push even more energetically for an attack in the northwest, it is quite possible that the army will disobey her, and perhaps even turn on her and/or split into opposing factions. Given the fact that Bhutto will also be trying to direct Pakistan’s economy away from control by retired army officers and toward control by her own supporters, the military is already likely to rebel under her rule. That is why it’s been so difficult to work out a power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto to begin with.
So the idea that Pakistan can simply “restore” the constitution, democracy, free elections, and civilian control, and then go to war against the Islamists now ensconced the northwest, is an illusion. None of those nice things has ever really existed in Pakistan, and Benazir Bhutto is every bit as likely to provoke further civil strife and internal military fragmentation as she is to solve Pakistan’s problems.
That is why the situation in Pakistan is so dangerous. Musharraf up to now has been our safest bet. If he goes, unfortunately, Bhutto offers no very good solution. Maybe Bhutto and the army can somehow restore the balance of democratic facade and de facto military control that held sway through the 1990′s. But in the transition to that (relatively) desirable state, the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal will be open to question.
– Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.