Another Perspective

Sitting on a Tinderbox

A key U.S. ally is in trouble again.

By 3.22.07

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The scene was bizarre even for veteran riot watchers in Islamabad. Scores of dark suited lawyers and students battled with sticks and stones against baton wielding and tear gas throwing police. For some foreign observers and anti-government activists, however, the answer to the current Pakistani contretemps is quite simple.

All that Pervez Musharraf has to do, they say, is reinstate the suspended chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court. By doing this the riots will cease, free elections can be held later this year and former presidents Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sherif can be allowed to return.

Of course it is necessary to overlook that both Bhutto and Sherif were exiled because they led administrations marked by massive incompetence and corruption. Neither appears fit to govern in these times of crisis or instill confidence in the development of democracy.

President Musharraf is sitting on a tinderbox of internal conflict in a country quite willing to tear itself apart through religious or secular strife or a combination of both. Meanwhile all the traditional tribal rivalries of mountainous Waziristan continue on as if it were still the days of the British Raj. The Taliban benefits from this anachronistic battling, which no Pakistan regime has ever been able to control.

As one of the most liberal -- if not the most liberal -- Islamic nation in the world, Pakistan provides an example of the full range of conflict and accomplishment possible in a Moslem nation. A small but politically powerful segment of the populace urges the application of strict adherence to ancient Islamic law to solve not only Pakistan's problems but also those of neighboring Afghanistan.

At the same time as Pakistan is categorized as underdeveloped, it is both praised and attacked for its nuclear advances. A nation that is supposed to be protecting the medieval practices of the Taliban appears developed well beyond that of a supposedly modern Iran. It took Islamabad's own Dr. Strangelove, in the form of Dr. A.Q. Khan, to provide the Persians a starter kit of Pakistani blueprints for nuclear weapon construction.

Meanwhile President Musharraf is under political attack because he suspended the chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court for, among other things, objecting to the transfer of terrorist suspects by the nation's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to U.S. security agencies. The fact that al Qaeda has used Pakistan as a sanctuary and training ground for years seems to have been lost on the judge and his rioting lawyers association.

American commentators and politicians have attacked the ISI for everything from leaking information to the Taliban and al Qaeda to actually hiding some of their leaders. Musharraf is characterized as unable to control his intelligence services: a charge that appears to have more than an element of truth. Washington always seems to be a bit unsure of its South Asian ally, but there is no question that it is needed.

All in all, General Pervez Musharraf has evolved from his early days in power as "just the right sort of chap" to run the always tempestuous Pakistan to " a bit of a dictator, what?" in the eyes of his still anglophile compatriots. The Bush Administration is slightly embarrassed from time to time at Musharraf's authoritarian regime, but has remained loyal to him personally. The fact that the President of Pakistan is reported to have a brother with a medical practice in Chicago and a son working in investment finance in Boston doesn't hurt. That's real globalization.

The extremely sophisticated and well-born President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan believes his Pakastani counterpart to be quite untrustworthy and has so told the White House. Karzai believes that Musharraf could have sealed the border between their countries, and thus is responsible for allowing the reinfiltration of the Taliban. Musharraf sees Karzai as an effete, rich guy with no military knowledge, who toadies to the Americans. Obviously they don't get along and they don't hide that fact. Both, however, are very important to the United States.

No matter the tenor of opposition to Pervez Musharraf both inside and outside Pakistan, the serious betting stands with Pakistan's president remaining around for a while. In the eventuality, however, of his stumbling there is another pro-U.S. general, Ahsan Saleem Hayat, in the wings to command the armed forces and the civilian Senate chairman, Mohammad Mian Soomro, to assume the presidency. Two men to replace Musharraf would also nicely divide the political inheritance. It might be an interesting alternative to the usual graceless manner Pakistan's rulers leave power.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.