Special Report

Playing With Fire

It's hard to be optimistic about Pervez Musharraf, but the U.S. has a few cards to play.

By 11.18.07

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Last week, in advance of U.S. Undersecretary of State John Negroponte's visit to Pakistan over the weekend, President Pervez Musharraf moved to diffuse the crisis that has gripped his country since his extra-constitutional declaration of emergency rule on November 3. Musharraf promised to finally renounce his position as General and take the oath of office as a civilian president by December 1st, released former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from house arrest, and appointed an interim Prime Minister to oversee elections in January that he has affirmed will go forward.

Is it time to be optimistic about Pakistan? Not quite. Musharraf has been promising for years to take off the uniform, and it's easy to understand why he hasn't done so; Pakistan's military is, by far, the country's most powerful institution, and there has always been the risk that if Musharraf were to relinquish his post as chief of the army his successor would become the real leader of Pakistan and leave the President a mere figurehead. Perhaps Musharraf will follow through on his promise this time, which may mean that he's insured that his closest allies remain in control of the military. It's quite proper that the military should answer to a civilian president. But until someone other than Musharraf himself holds that post, there's no way to know whether the chain of command ends with the office of the presidency (as it should) or merely with the man who happens to hold that office.

Assuming it's the latter, Musharraf could remain a dictator entirely unchecked by any meaningful constitutional order unless he voluntarily agrees to share power with a democratically elected parliament. Opposition leaders doubt that free and fair parliamentary elections can be held while the state of emergency continues. They're probably right, especially if Musharraf continues to use the state of emergency as an excuse to arrest not just radical Islamist rabble-rousers but also mainstream democrats.

Where do U.S. interests lie? Our first imperative is to prevent Pakistan's nuclear weapons from coming under radical Islamist control. Our second is to maintain our alliance with Pakistan against Taliban- and al Qaeda-affiliated militants along the Pak-Afghan border. Both of those goals can be helped along by the development of a democratic order.

Radical Islamists have done poorly at the ballot box in Pakistan. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the Islamist parliamentary coalition, received only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (and only 26 percent in the North-West Frontier Province, the MMA's stronghold). Yet the radicals clearly have a reservoir of potential support in the 45 percent of Pakistanis who, in a 2005 Pew survey, reported either "a lot" or "some" confidence in Osama bin Laden "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." If Pakistanis can express themselves at the polls, they will support the moderate parties -- but if they can't, they may well become sympathetic to the radicals who are willing to oppose the government by violent means. By stoking popular discontent with his state-of-emergency crackdown, Musharraf is playing with fire.

Negroponte called on Saturday for Musharraf to lift the state of emergency. Musharraf has refused. It's time to pressure him to reconsider with more than just words.

U.S. taxpayers have sent $10.58 billion to Pakistan since September 11, 2001. Close to 60 percent of that total has gone toward Coalition Support Funds, which are intended to reimburse Pakistan for assistance in the war on terror. This funding should be left in place; to cut it off would be self-defeating. But what about the other 40 percent? Ten percent has gone to humanitarian aid (including an aid package that responded to the October 2005 earthquake). Fifteen percent has gone toward major weapon systems that have little to do with counterterrorism. And another 15 percent has gone toward what is euphemistically called "budget support" -- a direct cash transfer to the Pakistani government that is, in practice, untraceable, most of which likely ends up lining the pockets of influential military officers.

It is the latter two categories of aid that can and should be re-examined. The Bush administration -- and congressional appropriators -- should make clear that the U.S. will cut off the 30 percent of aid that buys houses and anti-tank missiles for the military unless Musharraf reinstates the constitution and agrees to share power with a parliament elected in free and fair elections certified by international observers. If those demands aren't met, we should be fully prepared to adjust aid accordingly. If you can't buy influence, after all, there's no point in paying for it.

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John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.