The Problem in Pakistan

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.

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23 Responses to The Problem in Pakistan

  1. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Glad you bring up the Saudi Pakistan connection.

    If one day Riyadh gets “the bomb” we’ll know where they’ll have gotten it.

    The irony, too: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, staunch US allies and, wouldn’t you know, nexus of world terrorism.

    But it’s so much more fun to attack countries with names that start with IRA.

    Lieven? I was wondering whatever happened to him.
    His writings used to be all over the media. Then he wrote a book with Hulsman and that’s the last we heard.

  2. dass says:

    Again pretty much agree with Tony.

    But one thing I have never understood is this. Much of the Saudi monarchy and the populace openly supported the Taliban and like minded Pakistan based Islamic groups openly, even funding their madrassas and recognizing the Taliban, until of course 9/11. Why would they do this despite knowing that the Taliban was hosting Osama, who was calling for overthrow of Saudi monarchy. Was it just a case of convenience, where as long as Taliban did Saudi and Pakistani bidding in maintaining Sharia law and attacking India only then their existence was permitted?

    There is another reason why Pakistani public is not happy with Musharraf. its the Kashmir issue. keep in mind that every politician that has ever stepped into the limelight got that far by screeching and hooting about India and Kashmir.
    The Pakistani people are not happy that the very men who were causing trouble for India are now being chased by US forces and grudgingly by Pakistani forces

    I am honestly not sure why US is making such a fuss about this dictatorship in Pakistan. I mean, what gives? We are supporting other dictatorships around the world, so I am not quite sure why Pakistan is such a focus. I mean sure they have nukes, so what? as long as Pakistani military has a solid command and control facility for these nukes, the US shouldnt be worried. US should be more worried about the Islamic officers within the ISI and Army who may someday get so fed up with all this US meddling that they may end up stealing the secrets and selling it to their Taliban brethren. I think that should be Negropontes worry because what happens if one of these officers decides to sell the secret to some rogue element? and then that rogue elemen sets that bomb off in the west? then what? whom does US or Europe bomb?

  3. samuel burke says:

    thank you for sharing your perspective on the pakistan/usa relationship story.

    i absolutely love the way this is developing for the americans. If democracy is what america supports, then lets let the electorates local interests be expressed in the governments they choose and not an outside foreign interest.

    the Truth is the best solvent, Lies can not sit long in its presence, and is eventually divested of its power to reign over the nations where it is imposed by subterfuge and the power of force.

  4. pangean says:

    I definitely appreciate you bringing the class dimension into the analysis. It also should be noted that not only does Bhutto represent landlords of Sindh, but there is also a sectarian split, where the Sunni Mojahirs are the laborers on these same parcels of land.

    However, once again, I insist that we look at the ethnolinguistic dimension within Pakistan.
    No analysis of the region makes sense without it.
    During the 1960’s there were serious violent battles over language, partly culminating in the separation of Bangladesh, and the resolution of the Pakistani elite to utilize Islamic identity to try to hold the country together.

    It is absolutely crucial to absorb that Pakistan is an artificial creation just as much as Yugoslavia was.

    I am not the only one to note this. On Nov 11
    Don’t Forget Pakistan’s Yugoslavian Syndrome

    the following are very helpful maps to understand the situation

    Pakistan Ethnolinguistic Map (note the significant spillovers into Afghanistan and India or Pashtun and Punjabi respectively)

    Afghanistan Ethnolinguistic Map

    Pashtunistan Map (aspirational)

    A Flash animation where you can see the changing boundaries of South Asia over time as well, with the peak extent during the Mughal Empire in 1700s.

    India/Pakistan/Afghanistan has been following a similar arc as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Czarist Russian Empire, of emerging national aspirations that seek to redraw boundaries to reflect their identities that were previously subsumed under religiously defined empires.

  5. Faheem says:

    Musharraf is only concerned about himself and his lust for power. The US endorsed him for their own purposes and will do again in the future till they feel he is of benefit to them; the US will do away with him as they have with others in the past when they feel it is time. Pakistan is a nation of more than 150 million, more than five basic languages, and it is not so easily summarized as one observes in many articles and comments. Islam is what holds it together. While the West obliviously thinks they are reaching out to Pakistani’s about democracy etc, a different yet old sentiment is solidifying in Pakistan which is, there is literally no need to be too chummy with the West on all issues (except business). No doubt Musharraf is in power becuase of the West. Sadly a wrong yet lucrative impression is also portrayed in the West by the media and by reporting which does not touch grass root issues (in a Muslim state surrounded by enemies) – this self fulfilling prophecy cum reporting is about a boogeyman that the West wants and needs, so that their own populations are scared enough to accept any bill of security in lieu of freedom. Uptil recently this was just a boogeyman. At some point some people might get the idea, hey, the hype is there, the boogeyman image is there, why not fill it up with a real boogeyman? Now that is truly scary. Being a Pakistani, rest assured many ‘truths’ you read about in articles and see on the tele are not what they seem on the ground. People are not fooled so easily now, hence the lacklustre hurrah for the recent ‘democratic’ moves sponsored by the West. The biggest lies being told are not to the Pakistani public but to the Western public not by the boogeyman, but by their own (Western) governments, and the public swallows it, everytime. There, a case study for democracy.

  6. Pingback: How Will Pakistani Conflict Impact the World? « Dr Nasir Khan

  7. John Lewis-Dickerson says:


  8. Jamal Shah says:

    Pangaean, while your attempts at appearing Pakistan-savvy are appreciated, please try to do better next time. Almost everything you have written in your post is incorrect. I am from Pakistan. Let me tell you that there is no such thing as a “mojahir”. The term is “Mohajir” and it means immigrant. This term is used in a political sense to identify those Muslims who moved from provinces that became part of India in 1947, to provinces that are part of Pakistan.

    They are NOT labourers on rural land in Sindh. Quite the opposite, Mohajirs chiefly moved to Karachi and Hyderabad, the two largest cities in Sindh province. The labourers in Sindh are referred to as ‘haris’ which is not an ethnic classification – it simply means ‘farmer’. They are as Sindhi as the large land holding families.

    Also, you bring in the ‘Sunni’ school of thought into this whole discussion… this is entirely irrelevant. Sindh’s landlords are both Sunni and Shia. And there is no Shia/Sunni split of the type you suggest; i.e. Land owning families being Shia and the workers being Sunni. 70-75% of Pakistani Muslims are Sunni and the rest are Shia. This is not specific to any one region or any one occupation, the distribution is across the board.

    As for the maps you have provided URLs to. What is your point? There are different ethnic groups in Pakistan as there are in the US. While there is talk of a band of crazy texans declaring independence, it doesn’t mean that is going to happen. The references you have provided are entirely of the same category. A Pakistani would believe these to be about as credible as an average American would buy into the theory of an Aryan Nation takeover of the United States.

    Instead of publicizing your blissful ignorance concerning Pakistan – and that too in such an unfriendly, might I say virulent manner – please pick up a couple of good books on the subject and educate yourself. Or has that gone out of fashion?

    On the subject of Musharraf/Bush, please note that Musharraf has said many times that the action being taken against Uzbek mercenaries, Al-qaeda fighters and remnants of the Taliban straddling the Pak-Afghan border, is in Pakistan’s interest. The vast (99+%) majority of Pakistanis would concur with this. Pakistan, and the provinces it consists of, even before they came together to form a country, has never ever elected a religious party into office as a majority party. The % of votes earned by all the religious parties put together pale in comparison to even a modestly sized secular party, such as the MQM – and certainly the PPP.

    While too many in America continue to have fantasies about the extent of influence they exercise on other countries – magical phone calls made by Condie Rice changing the minds of Presidents, and 2-day trouble shooting trips by Negroponte winning over entire political parties in one shot – this is not so. Much as I hate to break it to you, I feel I must. Just as I have often wanted someone to remind President Bush that for all of his “Love of Freedom” and “Free Country” rhetoric, there are more prison inmates in the US than any other country on earth.

    At the end of the day, Pakistan is a country of 160 Million people with plenty of friends, a young and very enterprising population, a booming economy, a nuclear arsenal and one of the world’s largest militaries. China and Pakistan are more closely integrated than ever. The US has finally realized that on-again-off-again love affairs are no good, and positive engagement with Pakistan is in American’s own interest. And India too is more reconciliatory than ever before in our 60 year history. Despite the distorted daydream Newsweek wants us to buy, those of us who live in Pakistan and see all the positive changes and development happening here, it is not an Iraq and nor is it an Afghanistan. It takes botched invasions to make those happen…. remember?!.

    We are doing just swimmingly. Thank you very much.

  9. Hektor Bim says:


    I think you are pushing the “Pakistan is fine” line a little too much. Are you considering vacationing in Swat this year? Did you happen to see the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad earlier this year? Are you enjoying the regular suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan? You did notice that female literacy rates in Pakistan are declining, didn’t you?

    Pakistan is not a basket case yet. The economy is doing very well, despite the unrest, partially due to American support. We’ll see what happens, but Pakistan is not “doing just swimmingly”.

    Tony is overplaying the American influence. In that respect I agree with Jamal. A lot of the reason Pakistan has historically supported groups like the Taliban is as weapons against Afghanistan and India. Pakistan is always seeking ways to destabilize India and gain more power in Afghanistan as a counter against India. This has nothing to do with the US really. Pakistan took the US side because India partially took the Soviet side. Now that the Cold War is over, the relationship is much more strained, especially since Pakistan isn’t really interested in cracking down on the Taliban. For many people in Pakistan, not all of them poor Pashtuns, the Taliban are friends and allies of Pakistan. That’s part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that every time the military takes power, they encourage the Islamists as a counterweight to the democratic parties who are far, far stronger in society. That’s why Musharraf puts a lot more effort into arresting party activists than putting an end to the Islamist takeover of Swat.

  10. Hello the post is funny.
    I will definitely read your diary..
    thank you again

  11. Nice article.
    I guess you will link to my diary..
    See ya

  12. Bulletin News says:

    Amazing summary discussing The Problem in Pakistan. I love this blog!

  13. NY Tanning says:

    Hello the article is funny.
    I like your diary..

  14. Ian says:

    Jamal, your observation is ground-breaking. Really. Having a higher prison population per capita than many other countries simply indicates well functioning law enforcement and a determined judiciary (at least in developed countries, that is). In third world countries, it probably signifies a dictatorship or totalitarian tendencies.

  15. Aeliya says:

    Could anyone please help me find my father’s brother named Mohsin and sister Safia. My Grand Father Syed Zakir Hussain Abidi left them with one of his friends in Mohalla Allah Yar Khan Hyderabad Sind Pakistan while returning from Iraq about 70 years ago. My father Syed Hashim Ali was brought to India by my grandfather. My GF died when my father was small. My father could never meet his sister and brother. If anyone knows them or their descendents plz inform on my email. Thanks. Aeliya

  16. :O So mush Info :O :p THis Is he MOst AMAzing SIte DUDe:-D ;p

  17. Worst times have arrived therefore Mr. 10% (ten percent) have become leaders of our beloved country. I will not go into the details how corrupt our leaders are. Along with corruption they don’t care if poor people live or die. Zardari and his government have sold our country for few dollars and now our national interests are also on sale by him. When I think about the situation in Pakistan my heart really goes, looking at the necessity which Pakistani nation does not have, such as Sugar, Wheat flour, Electricity, Gas, jobs, clean drinking water and there is huge list of other necessities which Pakistani nation does not enjoy. However leaders of Pakistan have turned a blind eye to the problems of poor people. I always wonder that why Pakistan does not utilizes 18 billion people and produce various items which can later be sold in international market such as Airplanes, Fast Trains, Weapon technology and various other items. Leaders of Pakistan have pledged to neglect this nation and they are extremely busy filling their own pockets with stolen poor people’s money. I pray to God that the injustice vanishes soon and we see a real and authentic leader who can lead us through prosperity and happiness. I believe the leaders of Pakistan have failed to look after their country and they have failed to show care. We as a nation should unite together and raise against the ignorance we face today. Thank you

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  20. Ben Worsegle says:

    Jamal, your observation is ground-breaking. Really. Having a higher prison population per capita than many other countries simply indicates well functioning law enforcement and a determined judiciary (at least in developed countries, that is). In third world countries, it probably signifies a dictatorship or totalitarian tendencies.

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