Pervez Musharraf’s decision to resign the Pakistani presidency complicates an already-fraught situation.
When he took power in 1999, Musharraf was his nation’s top general. His coup was bloodless, and in many ways his dictatorship has been benevolent. He superintended impressive economic growth (although, for the past half year, Pakistan has been in a downturn), and he did not obviously strive to advance his personal interests. In this he differed from more than one of his elected predecessors, whose contributions to Pakistan often went little further than lining their own pockets.
Most significant about Musharraf’s rule was his decision to align Pakistan with the United States shortly after the attacks of September 11. This choice involved an element of personal courage, and not simply because supporting the U.S. marked him as an al-Qaeda target. The greater risk was internal: Pakistan’s military is largely pro-Western, and most of its population has little sympathy for the jihadi worldview, but its intelligence service, the ISI, is notorious for supporting Islamists. It has been implicated in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, and has supported Taliban elements in Pakistan’s tribal regions, which are not under the control of the central government.
Musharraf tried to make peace with those Taliban elements in an ill-fated deal that saw him withdraw the army in exchange for — well, it isn’t clear for what. In practice, the Taliban and their sympathizers have only grown more powerful. The latter years of Musharraf’s presidency were marked by occasional tensions with Washington, which wanted him to do more to confront and defeat the radicals in his midst.
What happens next is unclear. Pakistan is currently governed by a two-party coalition, which took power in parliament after elections this February. The coalition has been unified around little more than hatred of Musharraf. Its leaders — Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif — detest each other. They cooperated only to force Musharraf from office, and will now vie for power.
Zardari is the widower of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December. Zardari’s party — the Pakistan Peoples party — is center-Left and generally pro-Western. Zardari himself feels no sympathy for the Islamists and favors the continuation of Musharraf’s policies. Sharif, head of the Muslim League-N and a former prime minister of Pakistan (it was he whom Musharraf ousted in 1999), is by comparison more sympathetic to the radicals. He would not likely abandon Musharraf’s pro-U.S. orientation entirely, but could not be counted upon as an ally. There is nothing the U.S. can do to influence the outcome of the contest between Zardari and Sharif, but our hopes should attach to the former.
Unfortunately, both are typical Pakistani politicians. What this means is that in practice they are likely to be corrupt and incompetent. Such already proved the case with Sharif during his tenure in office, and Zardari has been jailed — justly — for his venality more than once.
Whoever emerges as the winner, the U.S. should do its utmost to pressure him into finishing the business that Musharraf started. Pakistan opposes cross-border U.S. raids from Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, citing concerns for its sovereignty. But the problem is precisely that the Pakistani government does not exercise full control over the tribal areas. Our message should be: If you do not take your sovereignty seriously, you leave us no choice but to enforce it for you.
We might strengthen Pakistani resolve to clean up its internal mess by tying future economic aid to its doing so. “Cleaning up the mess” must here be understood to mean not simply routing the Taliban, but purifying the ISI of its Islamist bent and attenuating the influence of the madrassas (fundamentalist schools that preach jihad). The solidifying alliance between the U.S. and India might also be leveraged: Pakistan fears any strengthening of the Indian position, and should be reminded that this will be the consequence of its alienating the U.S. by ignoring terrorists. In taking a tougher line, however, we should also hold out better carrots: in particular, more economic aid in exchange for cooperation.
We must also redouble our efforts to secure Afghanistan, if necessary by the deployment of additional troops. The Taliban resurgence there presented cause for alarm before Musharraf’s exit. Now that he has gone, we must be even more vigilant.
Worst-case scenarios for Pakistan are very bad indeed. It is a nuclear power whose Islamist fringe has a significant foothold in government. But there is a bright side too, which is that extremism does not speak to the great majority of Pakistanis (the religious parties performed very poorly in February’s elections). Their country might yet turn into a stable, prosperous, and moderate ally of the United States. Until then, we must prepare for the worst while persuading Pakistan’s leaders that their interests lie with us.