Our Man in Pakistan

The Financial Times:

The US urged a quick reversal of Pakistan's controversial emergency rule and a recent crackdown as it sought to revive negotiations on Sunday for a power-sharing agreement between General Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler, and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

President General Musharraf has ruled Pakistan since he took over in a bloodless military coup in 1999.  He has ruled the country as a generally moderate dictatorship ever since.  As a nuclear-armed, Muslim country, Pakistan has long had an outsized importance, but its visibility was raised enormously on September 11, 2001.

It is reported that, following the terrorist attacks in the U.S., Musharraf was bluntly confronted with an American ultimatum: you're either with us, or against us.  Amazingly, the General chose to side with Bush's war on terror, and has been a generally loyal supporter ever since.  He has personally survived at least a half-dozen serious assassination attempts; on the flip side, his country has received billions in American aid, making a material improvement in the national economy.

As a general rule, the U.S. would rather avoid propping up dictatorships; it tends to end badly and make us look stupid.  However, we frequently find ourselves doing so anyway because the alternative appears to be worse.  So we prefer the dictators to provide a veneer of democracy, via a rigged election of some sort, so as to provide at least a fig leaf of decency.

Musharraf has generally done so, manipulating the legal system with great skill.  Alas, earlier this year he ran up against a major obstacle: the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.  The Chief Justice stood in the way of an arguably unconstitutional reelection campaign for Musharraf, who therefore sacked him.

Chaudhry didn't go quietly, however, and TVs were filled with the peculiar spectacle of formally-dressed lawyers participating in the kind of street protests more generally associated with hippies in cutoffs and profane T-shirts in need of a laundromat.  This ended in an incident Ann Coulter pithily described thusly: "What's not to like about a guy who orders policemen to beat up lawyers?"

Over this same time period, Gen. Musharraf has been visited by the Ghosts of Pakistan Past: ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom were previously convicted of corruption and exiled.  Sharif was sent packing at the airport, but Bhutto, apparently possessed of too much popular support, was permitted to remain in the country - though, following a major terrorist attack on her convoy, she was placed under house arrest "for her own protection."

Now, the U.S. is attempting to pressure Musharraf to resign as head of the army -- as he's promised to do for years, but repeatedly put off -- and, preferably, to hold "free and fair" elections.  It all sounds like a good plan: bringing democracy to a previous military dictatorship.

Quite the contrary.  Somehow, we have reached the point where we view democracy and elections as ends in themselves.  But they aren't.  They are only valuable insofar as the results of the election would tend to allow another election later, and so on.

Pakistan is 99+% Muslim, a tremendously large percentage of which is fanatically extremist.  Just this past summer, Musharraf had to send in his army to destroy a fundamentalist, terrorist-producing madrassa in the heart of his own capital.  Similarly, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the ISI, is generally credited with having supported the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and helping to hide Osama bin Laden - roughly the equivalent of the CIA covertly supporting Hitler during WW2.

Last, a large chunk of what is nominally Pakistani territory is in reality a quasi-independent area of medieval Islamic fiefdoms known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  These domains are ruled by local mullahs; they resisted the full might of the British Empire a century ago, and the central Pakistani government hasn't been much more successful at bringing them to heel.

Not for lack of trying: the army invaded last year, and was, more or less, defeated; the terrain is so mountainous that conventional fighting is almost impossible, thus giving overwhelming home-field advantage.  That's why Osama bin Laden is generally thought to be hiding there: if he doesn't want to be found, no power on earth will be able to ferret him out, and being totally Islamist, all the residents are in complete agreement with his views.

So in effect, Musharraf is running a country which hates us, but he is our friend.  It's almost the exact opposite of Iran, where most normal Iranians love most aspects of the U.S. and wish their country was more like ours, but their government wants to drag the world back to the middle ages.  In such a circumstance, is undermining him and calling for "free and fair" elections really such a good idea?

A quick look at history shows us that elections are definitely no panacea, even when they are entirely free and fair.  Remember, Adolf Hitler was genuinely elected to the German chancellery in 1933, in an election that would have passed any reasonable muster at the time.  He was, in all fairness, the people's choice.  Of course, it was the last free and fair election they had for quite some while.

Supposing that, after seeing the polls leading up to the election and feeling his hair stand on end, German President Hindenburg had declared an emergency and martial law, and canceled the election.  What would the world's reaction have been?  Horror, of course, and condemnation.  Yet how many countless millions of lives could have been saved by that totally un-democratic action?

Democracy is a good idea.  All else being equal, it works pretty well.  But it doesn't work everywhere, nor all of the time, and most especially not in places that do not have a history of using it effectively.

We need to carefully think things through before we begin spanking our most loyal friends in a part of the world where friendship and loyalty are not readily found.  Otherwise, we can expect to find him replaced by something far, far worse - and with a shedload of nukes ready to hand.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Provided intelligence is thorough and analysts good - yes.

November 19, 2007 6:46 PM
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