The rather silly media narrative in which Washington supposedly suddenly faces a dilemma between backing the decrepit dictatorship of General Musharraf, or the Jeanne D’Arc pretensions (Winnie Mandela may be a closer analogy) of the kleptocratic Benazir Bhutto, has mercifully been laid to rest. That narrative’s connection to reality has always been somewhat tenuous, and the visit last weekend of Deputy U.S. Secretary of State John Negroponte — the man you send when there’s fixing to be done among unsavory clients in the troubled provinces, as his track record in Central America reminds us — made clear that business will continue as usual in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, notwithstanding some ritual scolding of Musharraf for the limits he sets on civilian participation in government.
The absurdity of the dictatorship vs. democracy-and-rule of law script was laid bare earlier this week when Musharraf’s hand-picked Supreme Court struck down most of the challenges to his reelection as president. Was that a setback for democracy and the rule of law? Perhaps. But it was a setback that fit with the U.S. design for getting Musharraf reelected, and then having him share power with Benazir Bhutto in order to broaden the base of the “war on terror” in Pakistan. (And let’s not forget that if Musharraf hadn’t gotten rid of the independent judiciary, Benazir herself would still be facing corruption charges.)
Negroponte delivered the perfunctory exhortation for Musharraf to lift his emergency rule — and, of course, Washington would certainly like to see him cede more power to Benazir, the civilian politician it has deemed “reliable” — as opposed to, say, Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister overthrown by Musharraf and now in exile in Saudi Arabia. You don’t hear U.S. officials excoriating Musharraf for sending Nawaz unceremoniously back to Saudi Arabia when he tried to return from exile, last month. (Musharraf, of course, being the cynical sort, has now flown off to Riyadh where he is expected to reach out to Nawaz and bring him on board, now that Benazir is refusing to play. The great unwritten story of this whole “crisis” is the Saudi outlook, because Riyadh wields considerable influence in Islamabad, particularly with the military, as it has done since General Zia took power in 1977. The great journalistic question that needs answering, right now, I think, is what does Saudi Arabia want to happen in Pakistan.)
Negroponte’s visit, however, left no doubt that Washington recognizes that the Pakistani military remains its indispensable ally in the “war on terror,” and that this will shape U.S. policy. Moreover, despite what some media reports portray, Negroponte would obviously recognize that Musharraf is not some sort of personality cult strongman gone mad. He rules on behalf of an officer elite, or a faction of the officer elite, whose collective will he reflects. The idea that he can simply be bumped aside for a more pliant general is ridiculous — it’s not hard to see why even the most pro-Western element of the Pakistani military would not trust the U.S. to call the shots on their turf. Moreover, while there may well be other factions in the leadership of the Pakistani military, I’d hazard a guess that the most pro-Western are those that Musharraf has gathered around himself.
But what’s missing in most of the media reports is a clear sense of why Musharraf is unpopular. It’s not because of his emergency rule, or because he has denied power to the established politicians who represent a feudal elite comprised of 22 families (including Bhutto’s) who own 60% of the land in Pakistan — many of the reports coming from Pakistan’s cities suggest that the majority of the population remains largely unmoved by the showdown between Musharraf and the political opposition.
No, the most important reason for Musharraf’s poor standing in the eyes of his population — as the Washington Post has finally let on — is because of his willingness to support the U.S. “war on terror.” As the post reported it, “Musharraf and the troops he commands have lost support among many Pakistanis. The president has been criticized for undermining national interests in favor of the Bush administration’s in counterterrorism operations. Public approval of the military sank after soldiers launched a deadly raid at a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad, with troops facing off against religious students.”
A similar observation comes from the always interesting analyst Anatole Lieven, who writes:
The opposition that Musharraf’s administration is facing from within the Pakistani elite is due partly to his own mistakes and partly to certain inexorable patterns of Pakistani politics, which eventually doom every regime to failure because it cannot satisfy the incessant demands for jobs and other patronage from its own supporters.
As far as the Pakistani masses are concerned, however, by far the most important reason for the steep fall in his popularity has been his subservience to the demands of the U.S. in the “war on terror”, which most Pakistanis detest. But while the U.S. might modify its policy somewhat in this regard, as long as the U.S. remains heavily present on the ground in Afghanistan and committed to the Karzai “administration” there, it obviously cannot afford to let any Pakistani administration off the hook over this—quite apart from the need for Pakistani help in pursuing international terrorists based in Pakistan and breaking up plots aimed at the U.S., or more frequently Britain.
The bottom line in Pakistan, where all opinion polls find Osama bin Laden an overwhelmingly more popular figure than President Bush, is that even the urban middle class opposes Pakistan’s frontline role in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is a war that most Pakistanis see as benefiting a hostile U.S. agenda — even those Pakistanis who want no truck with Shariah law themselves. Indeed, savvy middle class Pakistanis know all too well that the whole jihadist infrastructure of madrassas and paramilitary organizations was first created in the northwest as part of a U.S.-Saudi program to create the infrastructure for an insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan. They’ll know, also, that the Pakistani military nurtured this element as a proxy force against India in Kashmir, just as it nurtured the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Pakistani politics has been horribly disfigured, not only by the venal ineptitude of the Benazir-Nawaz brand of politician, but also by the role Pakistan has been expected to play, for a half century, in U.S. geopolitical plans. And those plans, as Lieven notes, can’t really be changed, meaning that Pakistan is likely to remain in the grip of Musharraf and his circle of generals — including Gen. Parvez Kiyani, whom Musharraf has tapped to replace him, and who has been the subject of various hopeful profiles in U.S. media as a kind of anti-Musharraf (although as one source in the WaPo version deliciously noted, Musharraf himself would have been deemed a kind of anti-Musharraf before he took power in 1999). The problem is that the U.S. needs Pakistan to be a client state, whose leadership remains ready to do Washington’s bidding. Unfortunately for Pakistan, that is likely to leave its politics in a perennial state of crisis.