Our Man in Pakistan

This critique is not by itself a novel one. But Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat and government advisor who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, takes our understanding of the issue onto a whole new level by demonstrating that Musharraf, along with his predecessors among Pakistan’s military coup-meisters, have made their own Faustian bargain with the devil. In this case, the devil is the military-Islamist alliance that has defined Pakistani national identity since the country’s founding.

While ostensibly cracking down on radical Islamists, Musharraf has–to maintain his power–cut deals with the religious parties that give these extremists succor, in particular the coalition called the Muttahhida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, or United Action Committee). Musharraf has also barred the parties of his main democratic rivals, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. As a result, in a nationwide referendum in October 2002, Pakistani Islamist parties–which had never earned more than single-digit support from the electorate–secured 11.1 percent of the popular vote and 20 percent of the seats in the lower house of Parliament. Musharraf, Haqqani writes, used “the MMA as his primary opposition to create the illusion that radical Islamist groups were gaining power through democratic means, thus minimizing the prospect that the international community–especially the United States while Pakistan offers support in the war against al Qaeda–would press for democratic reform.”

Unquestionably, the Musharraf regime has changed its tune since 9/11 and helped in the capture of some key al Qaeda terrorists, in particular Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But at the same time, because the Pakistani Islamist groups that sometimes harbor these terrorists are growing in power and influence under Musharraf’s constantly deferred promises to reinstate genuine democracy, these groups may no longer be controllable. Taliban still openly roam the streets of Pakistani cities, and the cross-border nexus of support that produced the London subway bombings last summer–in which native Britons went back to Pakistan for what appears to have been suicide-bomber finishing school–has shown just how ingrained the Islamist networks have become in Pakistani society. This presence was also visible during the response to the devastating earthquake last fall. In two of the hardest hit areas, Pakistani Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier Province, radical Islamist organizations were among the most visible relief groups while U.S. and Western aid lagged. Among these groups was a charity run by Sultan Bashir-ud-Bin Mahmood, an Islamist Pakistani who once held talks with al Qaeda about producing biological weapons.

Why does this military-Islamist alliance exist in Pakistan? Haqqani, one of the foremost scholars of modern Pakistan, gives us the full history of the danse macabre that Pakistan’s religious ideologues and military and intelligence leaders have performed together over the decades. He describes how Pakistani leaders going back to the nation’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, have struggled to build a national identity and have usually settled on only one unifying principle, Islam. This helps explain everything from the military’s decades-old effort to build up an Islamist insurgency in disputed Kashmir to Islamabad’s successful strategy of aiding and building up the Taliban in neighboring Pakistan during the 1990s.

Haqqani argues that as long as America relies on military strongmen in Islamabad, this internal Faustian bargain will persist. The radical Islamists will always have a safe haven inside Pakistan–a nuclear armed country that also, because of the military-Islamic ethos that rules, will always be a proliferation threat. Although the Bush administration rarely likes to acknowledge this, it is Pakistan’s rogue chief scientist A.Q. Khan (who is still under government protection)–not Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il–who has made it most likely that the “smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud” in a terrorist attack on America someday.

Haqqani’s conclusion is stark: only genuine democracy, rather than Musharraf-Bush ersatz democracy, can bring Pakistan out of its fatal attraction to extremism. This is perhaps the weakest part of Haqqani’s argument. After all, Pakistan has had several democratic governments, each of which became deeply corrupt, sparking popular disgust followed by military coups. Still, Pakistan’s problems are so knotty and profound that one is hard pressed to find another solution. Haqqani is probably correct when he writes: “Changes in the nature of the Pakistani state can gradually wean the country from Islamic extremism. Musharraf cannot. Unless Islamabad’s objectives are redefined to focus on economic prosperity and popular participation in governance–which the military as an institution remains reluctant to do–the state will continue to turn to Islam as a national unifier.”

The conflict with India, for example, is all but irresolvable as long as the military is in charge, he argues, if for no other reason than it supplies an ever-ready rationale for the army’s place atop Pakistani politics. The Musharraf regime has deceived the United States and the world about its willingness to engage in rapprochement with New Delhi, just as it deceives Washington about how aggressively it is stamping out the Islamic extremists, Haqqani writes. This, too, is a stealth policy with deep roots in Pakistan’s past, going back to Gen. Zia ul Haq’s understanding of “the paradox that had emerged from Pakistan’s simultaneous pursuit of hostility towards India and military ties with the United States. The semblance of good relations with India had become a prerequisite for Pakistan’s security relationship with the United States, which in turn was necessary if Pakistan could even think of military competition with India.”

The Bush administration may have come to appreciate, at long last, the double game the Pakistani government has been playing. Last July, to the consternation of Musharraf–who to be fair has tried hard to be an adequate U.S. ally even as he has used increased U.S. aid and support as a way of appeasing his right–the administration announced a new strategic relationship with India. Seen at the time as a way of containing China, Washington’s shift may have also been an effort to create a fallback ally if Musharraf’s delicate political balancing act falls apart. But by playing great-power alliance games while he is only half-heartedly pushing for democracy, Bush may only help to consolidate military rule in Pakistan. And military rule, as Haqqani argues persuasively, will doom us to confront an Islamist, nuclear-armed Pakistan for a long time to come.

Michael Hirsh, is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.

Michael Hirsh, is a senior editor at Newsweek, based in Washington, and author of At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World.