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America’s Pakistan Policy in Disarray

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  • January 02, 2008

    While the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has worsened the political turmoil in Pakistan, it has also left in disarray the US policy of attempting to nudge this crucial ally towards a democratic and stable future. The United States underwrote the deal between Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto in the hope that her return to power would lend legitimacy to the former’s increasingly unpopular rule. In Bhutto and her party, the US found moderation and cosmopolitanism – a counterforce to the growing religious extremism in the country. Bhutto, not surprisingly, was seen in some quarters as an US agent and an object of aversion just like Musharraf. The purported Al Qaeda declaration claming responsibility for her killing stated: “We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat mujahideen.”

    A Musharraf-Bhutto power sharing arrangement was a deliberate strategy adopted by the United States to bolster Musharraf’s legitimacy and thus contribute to political stability in Pakistan. Washington’s support for Musharraf’s continuation in power stemmed from the TINA (there is no alternative) factor, even though his reign has been marked by instability and feeble attempts to revive democratic institutions. US policy continues to be wedded to Musharraf for he remains a pivotal partner in ensuring the Pakistan military’s cooperation in the global war on terror. US officials fear that intense engagement of Pakistani security forces in internal problems will severely undermine and even jeopardise US anti-terror projects on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. As for Benazir, she appeared to the US as the best bet for restoring a semblance of democratic legitimacy to Musharraf’s rule. At the same time, Benazir, who presided over a corrupt government during her earlier stint in power and infamously authored the policy of recognising and supporting the Taliban, was more acceptable to Musharraf, compared to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

    Indeed, a couple of months ago, Newsweek magazine had termed Pakistan the "most dangerous place on earth". With close to 3500 terrorism-related deaths in the year 2007, nearly 2000 fatalities more than in the year 2006, Pakistan resembles a crumbling edifice. Each of Pakistan's provinces and every single city in the country has been targeted by terrorists and radical elements, who were once partners of the establishment’s terror projects in Afghanistan and India. Before the October 18 attack on Benazir's welcome rally, said to be the deadliest in terms of casualties, 55 suicide bombings had occurred in the country since January 2002 killing almost 574 people.

    The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in spite of Musharraf's superficial attempts at providing it facelift, continues to be closely linked with the Taliban and the Al Qaeda. Working towards the objective of gaining lost ‘strategic depth’ in a friendly or a pliant Afghanistan, the strategy in which Benazir too participated during her premiership, a large section of the Pakistani armed forces continues to court and is closely associated with the Taliban. There appears to be little possibility for the weakening of the stranglehold of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine on this important power centre in Pakistan.

    In fact, Musharraf has only been a reluctant partner in the US-led global war on terror. Musharraf's attempts to neutralise the jihadis in Pakistan have achieved minimal results. On more than one occasion, his armed forces have been compelled to surrender to the pro-Taliban forces in Swat district. Recent information has revealed that Pakistan has diverted a substantial portion of the $10 billion provided by the US to cover costs in the anti-terror campaign to purchase weapons systems that can only be used against India. Musharraf's authoritarian moves in a desperate bid to hold on to power include the declaration of emergency coupled with the crackdown on opposition figures and the judiciary. His inability to rein in the Taliban-Al Qaeda elements operating from his country has evoked serious criticism in the US Congress, which has imposed new restrictions on future aid to Pakistan. Benazir's death has raised further questions over Musharraf’s legitimacy and his ability to rein in terror.

    In the coming days, debate in US policy making circles would centre on the future course of establishing democracy while at the same time maintaining stability in Pakistan, although there is little chance of ensuring both under the present deteriorating circumstances. Benazir's assassination was a grim reminder that the election process itself may not address the existing complexities in their entirety. The Bush administration’s continued over reliance on Musharraf is typical of a policy that has not sought to build an alternative in Pakistan. And it is continuing to push for parliamentary elections as if these are a panacea for the country’s problems. Gains from a policy of providing legitimacy to Musharraf’s rule and the military’s role in the country’s politics are likely to be limited in the short term and are not expected to contribute significantly to the goal of Pakistan’s long-term stability.