US must change course in Pakistan

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released this week paints a bleak picture of Al Qaeda’s renewed strength and determination to attack America. And a major part of the blame, US officials charge, lies with someone President Bush has described as a critical ally in the war on terror: Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. Since 9/11, Washington has looked to President Musharraf to uproot Islamic extremism in South Asia. Nearly six years later, however, Pakistan is still a nuclear-armed crucible of jihadi culture, exporting terrorists and destabilising its neighbours.

For too long, Washington has coddled the Pakistani general, turned a blind eye to his crushing of democracy, and read too much into his pro-West rhetoric. The US must change course. And there are signs it’s about to. “There’s no doubt that more aggressive steps need to be taken,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. After almost a decade under Musharraf’s rule, Pakistan hasn’t changed much.

He has initiated reforms and revamped the economy. But where he was expected to do most, fighting Islamic extremism, Pakistan’s record is most disappointing.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban use Pakistani soil as a haven and training ground. Recent deals between the government and Pashtun tribes have in effect ceded the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. A big reason Al Qaeda’s influence is growing, according to the NIE, is the operational capability it enjoys in Pakistan. Musharraf speaks of “enlightened moderation,” but he has done more to pulverise secular democratic parties than contain Islamist ones. It was his electoral rules that helped Islamist parties win their largest parliamentary representation ever in 2002, marginalising the larger secular parties that threatened him.

Frustrated with developments in Pakistan, many in Washington look to elections and a civilian government for solutions. Democracy should be welcomed, but it will change little. The last time there was a transfer of power to a civilian government, in 1988, the military still chose the foreign minister and informed the PM that it would control the nuclear programme, intelligence, security, and policies toward Afghanistan and India. This time, too, the military will continue to call the shots — especially when it comes to Afghanistan.

Without Pakistani cooperation, Nato and the US will have to substantially increase their commitments to contain the Taliban. That cooperation will not be forthcoming until the US addresses Pakistani interests. In dealing with Pakistan, Washington has preferred to see the logic of the war on terror as self-evident, not recognising that even close allies will not cooperate if it does not serve their interests.

It is only by addressing Pakistan’s interests that Washington can secure greater cooperation from Islamabad. Washington cannot give Pakistan the sphere of influence in southern Afghanistan that it desires to make sure it will not be encircled by India.

However, Washington can give Pakistan greater interest in Afghanistan’s

stability than it has now by encouraging Kabul to include Pakistan’s allies and clients in government; and more important, to finally recognise its international border with Pakistan. — The Christian Science Monitor