The Trouble with Pakistan


THE ASSASSINATION of the great Pakistani political figure Benazir Bhutto last December seemed to emerge as a tailor-made story for the American media to fill the usual post-Christmas news void. The main character was a photogenic, Oxford educated woman with an aristocratic bearing and an accent evocative of . well, the British Empire. And though she’d grown more matronly in her decade of exile in London and Dubai, she still suggested the “oriental beauty”–with her ever present flowing head scarf–enough, at least, to catch the imagination of a CNN audience. Playing opposite the martyred heroine was the imposing, if less than dashing figure of General cum President Pervez Musharraf, who added an element of ambiguity and tension. He had been, Americans knew well, among their nation’s most important allies in the “war on terror,” though it seemed he had yet to deliver very much. Commentators even hinted that he might be something of a double-dealer.

But the real villain, Osama bin Laden, remained off camera, probably still at large not far away in the Pakistani wild west, the region known anachronistically but still officially as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA. There was little suggestion that the man who now embodies terror for much of the Western world had been personally involved in Bhutto’s murder. But the airwaves were full of speculation that al-Qaeda, or groups closely linked to it, were responsible. Even worse, viewers were continually reminded that Pakistan is a nation of 164 million Muslims with a nuclear arsenal. If that didn’t bring them to the edge of their seats, there was a set of leading questions: Was it possible that Islamic radicals could get control of those weapons? Could the “Islamofascists” take advantage of the turmoil to sweep into power in Islamabad?

Some time has now passed since Bhutto’s assassination, and with the results of the February elections anticipated, Pakistan appears to be muddling along in much the same state of limbo between democracy and military rule as it has since its first decade. The nuclear weapons remain safe and the “green menace” of radical Islam seems contained. As excited reporters have moved on, we can now look at the context of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination with both a little more distance, and a little closer focus. In so doing we just might get some ideas about how to, and how not to, deal sensibly with the trouble in Pakistan.


The media frenzy over Bhutto’s death reflected recently increased anxiety among the Washington foreign policy establishment over her nation. In many ways, that anxiety tells as much about what’s happening behind the scenes in U.S. foreign policy as it does about Pakistan. The discomfort in having to choose between Bhutto and Musharraf, between liberal democrat and secular ally, looks a lot like a case of what Madeleine Albright called America’s “question of conscience.” Simply put, that question is whether the nation should be guided primarily by principle and morality in its dealings with other countries, or pragmatism and self-interest. Arguably, the national anxiety, the excitement, the new fascination with Pakistan is simply that old dilemma of Uncle Sam’s, returned in the post-September 11 age.

Americans understandably love those underdogs around the world fighting for the right to elect their leaders, and the personal freedoms that go along with that process. This works out well when the governments against whom they stand defiantly are also America’s enemies–think Lech Walesa. Benazir Bhutto played that role as a woman who invited the antipathy of Muslim extremists. Musharraf did the same in openly modeling himself after Atatürk, the great Turkish secularist and modernizer. So far so good for the consistency of American feelings and interests. But when Bhutto spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations in August of last year, just before her fateful return to Pakistan, it wasn’t really al-Qaeda and the Taliban she seemed most worried about. The main enemy of democracy in Pakistan was not so much Islamic extremism, she said, but none other than the recurring “military dictatorship” now under General Musharraf.

Of course many seasoned diplomats in Foggy Bottom, and plenty of American political leaders have little hesitation about allying with a dictator now and again. When Musharraf ousted the democratically elected Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, for example, then presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush endorsed the coup, telling a reporter “the new Pakistani general–just been elected–he’s not been elected … the guy took over office … it appears he’s going to bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the sub-continent.” True, that was before the events of September 11, 2001 and the Bush administration’s conversion to the pro-democracy, neo-conservative philosophy. But as the public has become disenchanted with the war in Iraq, the pessimistic “realist” school of thought is enjoying a resurgence. As that thinking goes, a “strong man” who can assure order, and a willingness to go after America’s enemies, is an ideal ally, and we’re not sure democracy is a good idea in Muslim countries anyway.

Of course “maintaining order” and “assuring stability” can be a little messy, even for the most adept of autocrats, and over his eight year reign, General Musharraf found it necessary to employ the standard tools of the trade, from time to time. There were the rigged and manipulated elections, harassment of political opposition, the arbitrary arrests and “disappearances,” and promises that everything was done to return Pakistan to the path of democracy. Ordinarily such trickery and abuses get little scrutiny beyond perfunctory State Department human rights reports. But ironically, Pakistan’s growing role on the world stage meant more exposure of the general’s tactics, and a greater audience for those many dissident voices who dared challenge the military’s dominance. The crisis first erupted in March of last year, led by a most surprising breed of radicals–lawyers and judges.


General Musharraf had tried right away to consecrate his self-appointment as “chief executive” in law, but met with resistance from the judiciary. The very first stipulation of the new government’s “Provisional Constitutional Order No. 1” thus established that the Supreme Court and High Courts of Pakistan would “not have the powers to make any order against the Chief Executive.” That was followed up by the “Oath of Judges Order” in January 2000 which demanded a statement from serving Supreme Court justices, in effect, declaring fealty to the new regime. The five judges who refused were dismissed. When the court nonetheless insisted that Musharraf seek public sanction through a referendum, the general, along with his party (known as the Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam faction, or PML-Q), and the military, rigged the April 2000 polling and claimed a literally unbelievable 97.5 percent favorable vote. It was then that thousands of Pakistani lawyers, especially in the nation’s largest cities, first took to the street.

That tension blew over however, and for the first several years of his rule, Musharraf managed to keep a lid on the resistance of the legal establishment. In 2003 there was relatively little revolt after the passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally gave legal ratification to the regime. There were conditions again however, this time passed by the less than compliant parliament (known as the National Assembly) who insisted that Musharraf resign his position as commander of the army, officially Chief of Staff. The general agreed, but tensions continued to build as he never got around to “taking his uniform off.” When those tensions bubbled over last year, it was again judges and lawyers at the center of things.

In March 2007 Musharraf invoked his presidential powers, though with very dubious justification, to suspend the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Throngs of fed-up lawyers turned out on the streets in support of Chaudhry and defiance of the security forces sent against them. The regime was embarrassed by images broadcast around the world and propagated through the blogosphere, of middle aged men in black suits, their heads and faces bloodied by police batons. By the time Chaudhry’s fellow justices reinstated him in July, Musharraf found himself in the difficult position of having alienated the entire legal establishment, as well as the body who just might hold his future in their hands. October
marked the official end of the general’s term in office, and the opposition parties insisted once again that, before standing for re-election, he resign as army chief. They brought suit, and the case came before Iftikhar Chaudhry’s Supreme Court.

Justice Chaudhry missed his chance to rule against the general however. The election went forward, but with the opposition parties boycotting, Musharraf swept the voting in the National and Provincial Assemblies. On November 3, in order to preempt the Supreme Court decision, the general declared a “state of emergency” and threw Chaudhry in jail with several of his colleagues. Lawyers, political leaders and human rights activists were arrested by the thousands, while television stations and news outlets were shut down. Days of unrest followed, as news organizations defied the ban and accused Musharraf of sending “the country into a tailspin just to save his job.” When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was deployed to pressure Musharraf to restore the constitution or risk a cut in U.S. aid, the writing was on the wall. By mid-December a tearful Musharraf had turned over his symbolic baton to successor Ashfarq Kayani, and announced that National Assembly elections would be held as scheduled in January. And though many of his oppressive measures remained in place, and his political opposition stridently protested that voting would again be rigged, Musharraf suffered an undeniable setback, and would be forced to share power.

The significance of those events in Islamabad in late 2007 is in some ways both striking and straightforward. Despite trying to present himself as the only alternative to the Islamist threat, those challenging Musharraf for power and protesting his authoritarianism seemed to be clamoring for exactly the kind of rights and freedoms that America values so much. Particularly given its very public stance on such matters, the Bush administration could hardly do anything other than call for a restoration of democracy and civilian authority. But forceful arguments persist in Washington that given the instability, the United States should either stand by the general, or at least not push for elections. As reassuring as this tough-minded logic may be however, it’s almost certainly flawed. As we look into the dynamics of the Islamist threat in Pakistan, what we find in fact is that militarism is part of the problem, rather than the solution, for some reasons peculiar to Pakistan, and some to human nature.


As in Iraq, among the most important factors defining Pakistan is its demographic fault lines, and those divisions are especially critical to understanding how Islamic extremism is manifested. The very word “Pakistan,” meaning “Land of the Pure” in Urdu, is also an acronym for its component parts. P for Punjab, A for Afghan, K for Kashmir, S for Sindh, and “stan” from Balochistan. And while each of these regions has its own language, Urdu remains the official lingua franca, because it was the language of the influential “Mohajir” community, the refugees from India–and their descendants–who migrated during the great “partition” of the sub-continent in 1947. [See map below]

The Afghans in question, those inhabitants of the Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Provinces, are Pashtun, and share a distinct culture and a fervent solidarity with their ethnic brethren across the border in Afghanistan. Like their Baloch cousins, they also share a distrust of Islamabad and the Punjabi-dominated military, and demand a great deal of regional autonomy. Ethnic identity is no less pronounced in Sindh, the home of the Bhutto clan, and conflict between the native population and the Mohajir community underlies all politics there. In fact, antagonism was sparked again by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, as her Sindhi loyalists rioted in Karachi and terrorized Mohajir neighborhoods for several days.

These ethnic dynamics also shape national politics, largely determining the makeup and relationships of the major parties. Although Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto established the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with a national agenda, it remains to this day a vehicle for the Bhutto family who depend for support on millions of impoverished Sindhi villagers. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan

Muslim League-Nawaz faction (PML-N), the prime minister deposed by Musharraf in 1999, likewise derives most of his support from his home province of Punjab where he was chief minister before his rise to national politics. Though Musharraf’s party, doesn’t quite conform to this norm, it is still largely dependent for its support on the established Punjabi political figures who split from the PML-N to join its ranks.

The remaining major national party, the Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is actually a coalition of a half dozen parties with an explicitly Islamic stance, led by the small, urban, elite, but well organized Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The two largest parties in the coalition are each the political arm of an important division within the overwhelmingly Sunni Pakistani population. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) is closely tied to the strict Deobandi school of thought, while the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan is closely associated with the mystical and more forgiving Barelvi movement. But even there, that theological divide parallels Pakistan’s ethnic fault lines. The populations of Punjab, as well as rural Sindh, are both overwhelmingly Barelvi in their practice and outlook, even if the finer points of those theological distinctions probably escape most villagers. The Deobandi school, by contrast, is predominant among the Pashtun population of the Northwest Frontier Provinces and the FATA, which partly explains why the Taliban emerged in Peshawar, the region’s largest city.


Quite ironically, all of this divisiveness should mean significantly less worry about any possibility of Islamic radicals getting their fingers too close to Pakistan’s nuclear buttons. The disintegrating pull from the provinces has confronted the country’s leaders from the beginning, and is not likely to be resolved any time soon. The military has proven itself internally very cohesive and resistant to civilian authority, which makes it unlikely that any political leader, no matter his–or her–mass appeal, could assert control over the defense establishment. It would be unlikely, without tremendous support from the army officer corps especially, which, again, happens to be dominated by Punjabis. In fact some 75 percent of army recruits are from Punjab and tend to be less religiously oriented than Pakistani society as a whole.

The center of Islamist politics, and what radicalism there is in Pakistan today is not in the army, but in the
Deobandi, Pashtun tribal areas and Northwest Frontier Provinces. It is concentrated there in part because the Taliban and associated organizations have managed to equate their cause with Pashtun solidarity. As analyst Vali Nasr explains, (using the Pakistani term for Pashtun) “Pathan politics is now essentially Deobandi,” and the “Tablibanization” that has occurred there is the equivalent of the “Islamization of Pathan nationalism.” As other experts, like New York University’s Barnett Rubin caution, this by no means implies universal support for the Taliban, and militant groups in those areas are also feared by locals for their brutality, which they don’t hesitate to unleash against their own. But it does mean that the “disease” of Islamism, especially at the popular level, is largely isolated in the tribal areas and Northwest Frontier Provinces.

There is however one thing that could change that and allow radical Islam to make the jump across Pakistan’s ethnic divisions, spread through the top ranks of the military, and empower populist Islamic political leaders to mobilize the entire country: a perceived invasion by the U.S. military. In response to the idea of U.S. intervention in the FATA, Teresita Schaeffer, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and the doyenne of the Washington policy community for that region, surmised: “I can’t think of any more efficient way to unify Pakistani opinion in a ferocious nationalistic response, against us.” Her conclusion is supported by available polling data. In January of 2006, the United States conducted missile strikes in the village of Bajaur in South Waziristan, one of the FATA agencies, in an attempt to kill al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. By official accounts, the strikes instead killed eighteen civilians, including five women and five children. As the State Department declined to apologize, protests erupted in cities throughout the country, attracting tens of thousands, and featuring fervent, hate-filled speeches directed against the United States and the regime. When the organization Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT) next measured favorable opinion of the United States among Pakistanis, they found that it had dropped by one half since before the strikes, from a recent high of 46 to 23 percent.

Encouragingly, the same data suggest that there is an equally effective tool for driving up favorable opinion toward the United States That high of 46 percent was recorded in November 2005, just one month after a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir killed some 75,000 people. Within days after the quake, the U.S. military was engaged in a major humanitarian relief operation there, rushing tons of aid supplies, and providing shelter, food and medical care. Karen Hughes, the Bush administration’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy confirmed the effect. The “Chinook helicopter,” she noted, “quickly became one of the most popular toys in Pakistan, and polls showed that the favorable opinion of Americans doubled.” TFT, the source of those polls, drew the conclusion that “American humanitarian assistance makes a significant and long-term difference in building goodwill toward the United States and eroding popular support for global terrorists.”

That polling data also suggests a possible resolution to the American foreign policy dilemma, at least in the case of Pakistan. In fact, the U.S. military’s uncertainties about what to do there are already being informed by the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Inside the Pentagon, it is increasingly understood that future “irregular warfare” will not be characterized primarily by what the military terms “kinetic action,” the institution’s euphemism for shooting people and blowing things up. Rather, the institution has come around to believing that defeating extremism will require mastering the human terrain–that is, focusing on winning over the population on which militants depend for support. So counterinsurgency now implies building roads and health clinics as much as hunting “bad guys,” and to do the right thing is also to do the smart thing.

The tough-minded “realist” thinking that advocates continued support for Musharraf, and pushing him to use greater force in the tribal areas, not only ignores those hard learned lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also fails to account for the particulars of Pakistan. Clumsy actions in the tribal areas by the Pakistani Army, famously inept in the nuances of counterinsurgency, have only driven the Pashtun population further into the embrace of the Taliban and their allies. Moreover Musharraf’s autocratic tactics have only further alienated the MMA and those relatively moderate Islamist, Pashtun leaders who’ve proven themselves willing to come to the table and invest in the political process. In fact, when it’s been allowed to work, Pakistan’s democracy, imperfect as it has been, has allowed each region a stake in the national project, thereby drawing off many of the resentments that fuel militancy. And the fact that the most visible opposition has emerged from the judicial sector and political parties, emphasizes that military rule is only inhibiting the country’s movement toward the kind of open, free, democratic society that rejects extremism.

To its credit, the Bush administration has rejected calls to continue unconditional support for Musharraf, and insisted that the February parliamentary election meet international standards of legitimacy. Not that elections alone will solve Pakistan’s troubles–they may very well provoke ethnic tensions in the short term. The threat of military involvement in politics also remains, and further attempts by Musharraf to reclaim personal power could destabilize the country further, as could any aggressive U.S. military action. The various political parties will have to accept the rules of the game themselves, and the majority especially will have to permit, even encourage legal, political opposition. The victor, presumably the PPP, will also have to resist the temptation to corruption, and fight in the civil bureaucracy. If progress is made in these areas however, Benazir Bhutto may yet serve as martyr for the democratic cause, and historians may look back on her tragic and dramatic death as a turning point for Pakistan. And while that might mean less excitement on CNN’s broadcasts from Islamabad, we will all undoubtedly be better off for it.