Avoiding a Deluge

Without Musharraf, Pakistan’s future seems less clear and less stable than ever. The United States must take a fresh look at its policies toward the country and the region.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the man characterized by the Bush administration less than a year ago as an "indispensable" ally in the War on Terror, was forced from office earlier this week because, well, quite frankly Washington decided that Pakistan was more indispensable. The issue now is not only whether the direction that Pakistan takes in the post-Musharraf era vindicates that choice, but whether the question was even framed in a proper perspective.

Since 9/11, America's regional security strategy was predicated upon Musharraf remaining at the helm of the world's only nuclear-armed Muslim country and cooperating on counterterrorism in general, along with the ongoing efforts by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaeda and Taliban elements along the Afghan-Pakistani border in particular. Needless to say, more than few have questioned the true extent of the general's helpfulness. On the other hand, the U.S. agenda of regime transformation-one pushed, at least in the case of Pakistan, by both the current administration and much of the American foreign-policy establishment-required that Musharraf not only cut himself off from his power base as chief of the army staff, but also yield to a return of "democracy." First that democracy took the form of the person Benazir Bhutto and then, following her death, the shaky marriage of convenience between two feudal politicians, Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The tenuous link in this strategy was wishful thinking that somehow one election and the installation of a civilian head of state (yet another feudal political dynast, Muhammad Mian Soomro) would suffice to set Islamabad on the democratic path-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was certainly engaging in more than a little projection when she declared that the new government's goal was "becoming a stable, prosperous, democratic, modern, Muslim nation"-and that a democratic Pakistan would naturally help to the United States and its allies in the fight against the resurgent Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.

One does not have to indulge in the mass hysteria of some parts of the commentariat about the dangers of an imminent Islamist takeover-Islamabad today is not Tehran of the late 1970s, Musharraf was not the shah and an Ayatollah Khomeini has not yet emerged to galvanize the masses-to nevertheless be concerned about the forces tearing Pakistan apart. As I noted after the Bhutto assassination and Hassan Abbas indirectly confirmed earlier this week, the central government's writ prevails over just about one-third of national territory, if that much.

As the regime loses its grip on the periphery, incidents of terrorism have spiked. In 2007, at least 3,599 people-including 1,523 civilians, 597 military and security personnel, and 1,479 terrorists-lost their lives amid terrorist violence. These fatalities were more than double the total deaths in the preceding year (1,471) which, in turn, were more than twice as many as suffered in 2005 (648). Though, it should be noted that these figures are based on official data, which tend to understate the number of casualties; the actual toll may be considerably higher. The acceleration of the violence is underscored when one considers that between the first suicide bombing in Pakistan in March 2002 and the end of 2006, there were a total twenty-two such attacks; in 2007 alone, there were fifty-six suicide attacks, including assaults on military convoys and installations, political figures, mosques and public accommodations. Musharraf's exit has had no discernable impact on the violence: the day after he vacated the Aiwan-e-Sadr palace complex, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a public hospital in Dera Ismail Khan in the North-West Frontier Province, taking the lives of more than thirty people and injuring scores of others.

The worsening security situation is mirrored by declines on a number of socioeconomic indicators. The United Nations Development Programme currently ranks Pakistan 136 out of 177 countries surveyed in terms of the Human Development Index, a slide of two places from its position just one year earlier. The low development is surprising since, as Walter Rodgers recently noted, the country's official literacy rate of 49.5 is based on the notion that the ability to sign one's name constitutes literacy; in reality, between 80 and 90 percent of Pakistanis are functionally illiterate. According to the World Food Programme, 89 of the country's 112 districts face problems of food insecurity. While extremists can certainly exploit human misery to find safe haven, recruit and undertake operations, Pakistan's problems are so deeply rooted that it is unlikely legislation recently introduced in Congress to encourage American investment in the troubled border areas-assuming any shareholders don't revolt first-would affect conditions enough to make a meaningful difference.

So in what direction should U.S. strategy be oriented given this dismal panorama?

First, America must avoid the temptation to personalize foreign policy: Benazir Bhutto, whatever her virtues, was certainly a paragon of neither democracy nor good governance; Pervez Musharraf, despite his many shortcomings, was no brutal tyrant. To paraphrase Lord Palmerston, a nation's foreign policy ought not be gambled on the permanence of its alleged friends, but rather be based on enduring geostrategic interests-its own and those of its international partners.