There are reports that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will be stepping down in the next few days in order to avoid impeachment. Musharraf has denied these reports, but the prominence of the rumors indicates strongly that the political balance of power has shifting against Musharraf – he will almost certainly be reduced to a figurehead. It is difficult to say how history will judge Musharraf. From the American perspective he was not adequately taking on Islamic extremism. But from the Pakistani perspective he was becoming an American lackey. The truth is somewhere in between. What Musharraf lacked was either the desire or the capability to take on the systemic problems bedeviling Pakistan. It is possible that with his exit from the scene, a new opportunity to take on these challenges could emerge.
On one level, Musharraf has been cooperative on counter-terror issues, arresting high-profile al-Qaeda and acquiescing to missile strikes on Pakistani territory. However, while missile strikes are a useful tool – they are no substitute for a serious policy. They have also contributed to Musharraf’s loss of standing in Pakistan, since he is seen as subordinating Pakistani sovereignty – and lives (these strikes have, unfortunately, killed civilians) – to American priorities.
On the other hand, Pakistan has not successfully taken control of the tribal areas where al-Qaeda is re-grouping. Americans would be wise to temper their criticism of the Pakistani military’s counter-insurgency efforts. Imagine a heavy military force designed for conventional conflict being forced to fight a major conventional war stumbling when forced to fight a tough insurgency in hard terrain.
In addition, when Pakistan has cracked down harshly on Islamist groups (such as storming the Lal Masjid Mosque in Islamabad) the response has been waves of Islamist violence – a certain amount of trepidation is understandable.
Large organizations do not change quickly or easily – no matter what the political leadership orders. Ultimately, the Pakistani military’s size (a drag on the economy), shape (oriented towards conflict with India), and operations (such as meddling in Afghanistan) are due to its ongoing conflict with India over Kashmir. The Kashmir issue probably cannot be effectively resolved. However, in general Pakistan’s civilian leaders have been willing to lower the level of tension (in fairness, so did Musharraf). When PPP chief Asif Zardari stated that relations with New Delhi should not be held hostage to the Kashmir issue he was criticized from almost every quarter. Several days later General Kayani made a highly publicized visit to the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Pakistan is at a severe disadvantage vis-à-vis India, both in geography and power (Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy is motivated by a desire to keep that country weak, and thus potential strategic depth for Pakistan in a conflict with India.) U.S. policy has to take Pakistan’s security concerns seriously.
With a civilian government holding real power, the United States might be able to offer security guarantees that would reduce Pakistani fears of conventional defeat by India. Equally important would be the framework of this dialogue. The United States should work to structure these discussions so that Pakistan’s leadership is not negotiating from an inferior position. This combination of real guarantees and the appearance of dealing with the U.S. from a position of strength (essential for the new leadership to establish that it is not in the American pocket) might give Pakistan’s civilian leadership the strength to re-shape the security establishment for its current challenges, reduce the size of the ISI, and counter-act the military’s ongoing expropriation of Pakistan’s civilian economy.
This approach will require a combination of strength and subtlety from both the Pakistani and American sides – qualities that have been in short supply. Nonetheless, a nuclear-armed nation of 200 million, in a strategic location – and at least some democratic currents in its politics – demands this level of attention.