Pakistan’s foreign policy, constructed for short-term survival, is as fragile as a deck of cards. Bordering China, India, Afghanistan and Iran, the nation with nuclear weapons and a literacy rate that approaches 50 percent, has been led by General Pervez Musharraf since 1999 when he assumed power in a coup d’état. After the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf became both strategic partner in the US-led war on terror and a procrastinator who shelves democracy in the name of stability. To maintain power on the home front, the president-general juggles demands from all manner of special interests – sectarian groups, army officers and tribal groups. The US is well into its sixth year of fighting to wrest control of Afghanistan from the Taliban, and as Al Qaeda continues to regroup in the border region, the Bush administration blames Pakistan. The issue of American security from Al Qaeda is, however, linked to peace and stability in Pakistan. International consultant Paula Newberg writes that only an end to military control can bring peace with nemesis India, lay the groundwork for democracy and renew focus on non-military goals. For now, extremist parties fail to win majority approval in local elections, so democracy could deliver sensible policies and stability for Pakistan. The relentless pursuit of military domination – relying on nuclear weapons and superpower alliances, combined with inadequate measures to ensure succession or control – has left Pakistan on the edge of insecurity, the effect of which could be felt by the rest of the world. – YaleGlobal
Talibanistan: Pakistan’s tribal border region of Waziristan has become the haven of Taliban fighters
WASHINGTON: For the first time since the Americans turned their gaze away from Afghanistan toward Iraq, leaving Al Qaeda to lick its wounds and regroup, Pakistan’s mountainous tribal territories have returned to center stage in the global fight against terrorism. This new focus on the Pukhtun borderlands highlights the difficult political terrain on which Pakistan’s contentious foreign policy is built – and the dangerous ground on which its hopes for recovering democracy may rise or fall.
To the dismay of its friends and glee of its militant foes, the country that the US calls “our partner in the war on terror” is having a tough year. As Pakistan suffers through suicide bombings and sectarian discord, remaining on high terror alert, its ambitions remain surprisingly unclear. Pakistan’s difficulties in reconciling the demands of its anti-terror allies with those of its own citizens raise critical questions about the viability of its regional ambitions and the durability of its ham-handed political system.
This is a familiar predicament for Pakistan, which has spent 60 years of independence trying to sort out how to live safely, peaceably and prosperously in a region where, paradoxically, its role seems to vacillate between victim and interloper. Convinced that its neighbors mean harm – sometimes correctly, sometimes not – Pakistan’s politicians and army officers conspired decades ago to establish a national-security state that has only deepened the country’s fissiparous tendencies and political fragmentation. The country’s diverse communities struggle mightily against one another as often as they challenge the government to secure their rights. With sectarians and tribal leaders battling politicians and soldiers on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the stakes this year continue to rise.
Policy and patronage have always clashed in Pakistan’s unruly politics. But as the military has become more powerful and corrupt, its obdurate and self-interested ambitions have, in a perplexing and self-defeating way, limited its strategic ambitions. The military has secured its political dominance, for example, by supporting an entrenched militant insurgency in Kashmir that it finds hard to give up, and has cemented its role in civil society as an enormous – and inevitably, conservative – commercial force. Aiming for security, Pakistan has consistently opted for a more limited stability that cannot possibly keep it safe. Its incremental failures have not only confused the conflicted, lightly governed border territory it shares with Afghanistan, but also turned the entire country into a target for domestic and global terror.
General Pervez Musharraf – keen to keep the power he appropriated seven years ago – has recognized some of the perils of this approach, particularly as it affects Pakistan’s relationship to India. After a long dry spell, the two countries have resumed bilateral talks on a range of critical issues, including nuclear proliferation and control, intelligence sharing and the status of Kashmir.
This should be encouraging news. But as it has been for too many decades, Pakistan’s foreign policy remains double-sided and double-minded. With India as the focus for long-term strategy and a consequent desire to dominate Afghanistan in a counterbalancing policy called strategic depth, all the problems that Afghanistan represents for Pakistan lead to short-term, reactive confusion for its powerful soldiers, weak politicians and foreign allies alike.
No place is more complicated and awkward than the western border, the place where Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar are still rumored to hide and where the chasms between government power and local autonomy are revealed daily. Islamabad’s grudging efforts to plug the holes in the border last year in Waziristan – where the army arrived in full battle rattle to fight a 19th century war against an insurgency of indeterminate means – failed so dreadfully as to suggest that it was simultaneously undercutting its local alliances and risking its own security. Pakistan’s subsequent decision to turn over border control to local tribes who were then meant to thwart Taliban fighters hasn’t worked, either.
Attentive to the demands of the US if not the norms of the international community, Pakistan has proposed small, ineffective initiatives in the past year, threatening in quick succession to fence and mine the border, then hastily retracting the latter notion, and return refugees to chaotic Afghanistan. This muddle is a far cry from the intrusive, but clearer, policy of strategic depth that earlier impelled Pakistan’s generals. In truth, Islamabad seems not to know whether it wants its border to be a buffer against instability, a holding pen for bellicose tribes or a staging ground for further interference in Afghanistan. Little wonder that it appears one day to support negotiations with the Taliban, another to dismiss the movement’s potency, a third to encourage cross-border tribal consultations and, on most days, to define its relationship with its own frontier tribes and parties by bribery, punishment and rancor.
These inimitable border conflicts reveal the searing hole at the heart of Pakistan’s politics. While the world’s eyes focus on the faltering enterprises of state building and security in Afghanistan, the same critical processes remain unfinished in Pakistan, where decades of nimble state patronage have turned politics into artful but dangerous and continuing manipulations. The military sets up Islamists to challenge secularists and tribal leaders and so divide tribes from themselves; the state patronizes militants; and political parties – the leaven for resolving disputes in robust democracies – wither on the sidelines.
The greatest threat to the state remains, ironically, the management of the state itself, and its weaknesses highlight Pakistan’s perpetual disputes between militarism and participatory democracy. When challenged about tactics and strategy, Musharraf reverts to a soldier’s accounting of war: assassination attempts, soldiers lost to battle and the frustrations of volatile tribal politics. He rarely tallies the number of renditions undertaken at the behest of the Bush administration, the hundreds of disappearances detailed by the Pakistan Human Rights Commissions or the acute crisis these practices inflict on an already compromised judicial system.
Musharraf’s detour on the road to democracy, with support from allegedly pro-democracy Washington, has compromised Pakistan’s capacity to govern itself well and securely. Unbothered by the soft bigotry of low expectations, Washington went to war in 2001 with the ally it could cajole and buy, not the one it might ideally want. Despite recent criticism from the US and persistent critiques at home, Musharraf knows that the current US anti-terror campaign relies on the same border – the place President Bush cavalierly calls “wilder than the Wild West” – whose porosity the US now conveniently decries. The president-general also anticipates that while opinion is shifting during Washington’s budget-and-blaming season, the Bush administration is unlikely to do anything that might compromise the fragile US-Pakistan alliance that keeps him in office.
Let’s hope he’s wrong. Pakistan’s familiar political disarray and bickering politicians will continue to tax the patience of Pakistan’s and America’s generals. No doubt Musharraf will bank on the popular fear of extremism to tide him over in an election year in which he should not even be a candidate. But if Pakistan is to repair its torn political fabric and fix its tattered border, the army’s hold over domestic politics and foreign policy – the calculus nurtured for decades – needs to be broken. Support for even a small peace with India may help Musharraf lead the way: to declare victory, and, finally, turn over Pakistan’s future to its voters.
Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who has covered south Asia’s politics for more than two decades.