June 25, 2007

June 25, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

Pakistan's Political Future and U.S. Interests

Following three months of protests against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf over the government's dismissal of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, U.S. officials have begun to worry about the stability of the Musharraf regime. The most visible example of this growing concern was seen in mid-June when a trio of top U.S. officials visited Pakistan to pulse the situation.

As the Administration evaluates options and determines next steps in its policy toward Islamabad, it should be guided by the strategic necessity of a return to democracy in the country.

When the crisis in Pakistan first began, conventional wisdom in Washington held that Musharraf was likely to weather it and therefore Washington could maintain a narrow policy of strong support for him. However, US officials began to revisit these calculations as the volume of the protests increased and especially when Musharraf attempted to muzzle the media through new governmental powers to rescind television broadcasters' licenses and seize stations that violated government regulations. The efforts to institute the draconian measures were both signs of Musharraf's political vulnerability and determination to retain power.

The case for democracy

There is genuine debate about whether democracy in Pakistan will weaken or strengthen the stability of the Pakistani state. Those supportive of Musharraf note that during Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif's stints in power, violence in Karachi spiralled, sectarian tensions spread and the economy suffered, largely due to rampant corruption that started at the top.

Today's Pakistan has its own set of challenges, including Talibanization of the Northwest Frontier Province, simmering insurgency in Baluchistan, and the recent amassing of hundreds of Islamic extremists in a Mosque in central Islamabad, threatening country-wide suicide attacks unless Islamic laws are adopted in the country. It is true that Pakistan's economy is better off than it was ten years ago, thanks both to sound economic policies by the Musharraf regime and US assistance. But ethnic, sectarian, and religious extremist challenges continue to plague the country.

Those supportive of a return to democracy argue that restoration of civilian rule will broaden the popular support base for countering extremism and terrorism and energize civil society around parties that support secular democracy. This should be a compelling argument for the Bush Administration, which acknowledges the importance of promoting a worldwide freedom agenda to counter al Qaida's support for the creation of an Islamic Wahhabist Caliphate through the violent overthrow of established regimes.

Also compelling is the argument that a wholesale, unfettered opening of the Pakistani system to democracy, without sufficient buy-in from the Pakistani military, could create political chaos that Islamists would seek to exploit.

US-Pakistan relations after Musharraf

The characteristics of a post-Musharraf regime will largely depend on the way he departs from the political scene. If he sticks to his original plan of getting re-elected by the current five-year-old parliament; retaining his uniform indefinitely; and tampering with the results of the parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year, we are more likely to see him exit abruptly. In this scenario, political parties and civil society would intensify their demonstrations and Musharraf would become politically isolated and have to rely increasingly on repressive state powers to sustain his rule. Senior Army leaders would then have to pressure him to step aside. This would translate into a quick departure amid heightened public anger with both Musharraf and his U.S. supporters, making it easier for an anti-U.S. General or religious leader to rise to power.

If, on the other hand, Musharraf adopts a conciliatory approach toward the political opposition and begins a process to restore civilian rule, power will change hands in a smoother, more predictable fashion.

US policymakers worry that a civilian-led government in Pakistan would be less committed to the fight against terrorism and to continuing Pakistan-India dialogue. These concerns are largely unfounded. Considering that Musharraf's decision to support US counterterrorism efforts was taken to safeguard Pakistan's own supreme national interests, it is probable that had a leader of a mainstream secular party been in power at the time of 9/11, he/she would have made the same decision as Musharraf about abandoning official support to the Taliban and supporting the US-led war in Afghanistan.

In any new political order, the military would retain a major role in decision-making on security matters, meaning that counterterrorism operations would likely proceed without major interruption. The Pakistan military also would want to maintain its strong ties with the U.S. military, due at least in part to the large-scale military and economic assistance programs from the U.S. A civilian-led government with broad support from Pakistani society could even strengthen Pakistan's support for countering terrorism, especially if its mandate included the halt of the Talibanization of society.

There also is little reason to believe that talks with India would suffer under civilian rule. Although Musharraf deserves credit for his commitment to moving dialogue forward in recent years and especially for announcing forward-looking proposals for resolving Kashmir, he is the same leader who, as Chief of the Army eight years ago, undermined Nawaz Sharif's talks with New Delhi by launching the Kargil military operation. The current dialogue process has gained broad support from both the Pakistani and Indian publics and has become institutionalized at various levels.

Future prospects

A return to democracy should include a process that is smooth, peaceful, and transparent to ensure that political change brings progress toward a more prosperous and moderate Pakistan and does not open fissures that can be exploited by anti-state extremists. The US can play a helpful role in the transition to civilian rule by pressing the military to work with main political parties and adhere to previous commitments to restore civilian-led rule within a certain timeframe.

Pakistani leaders have already recommended an All Party Conference to discuss the polling process and bring national reconciliation, which could provide a basis for moving forward. The conference would facilitate an open, transparent process that limits the opportunities for backroom politicking and constitutional manipulation that has characterized Pakistani politics in the past. The Pakistani people have demonstrated that they are willing to stand up for the preservation of their democratic institutions and the U.S. cannot afford to ignore their voices. 

Lisa A. Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

A version of this article appeared first in the Pakistani weekly “The Friday Times” on June 22, 2007.