December 27, 2007

Pakistan On the Brink Post-Bhutto Assassination


The assassination of Benazir Bhutto comes at a terrible time for Pakistan, not least given the country was already lurching towards increasing instability. And for the Bush Administration--which had pinned its hopes for greater democratization and stability in Pakistan on an unlikely alliance between General Musharraf and Bhutto--it's high time to go back to the drawing board regarding Pakistan policy (and beyond simply trying to substitute Nawaz Sharif for Bhutto).

A few things, however, are now clear. Musharraf's position in Pakistan is increasingly untenable. While the assassination was very likely the work of al-Qaeda and/or allied parties, there is a widespread belief within Pakistan that, at best, Musharraf's government provided lackluster security to Bhutto, and at worst, that elements of the ISI (in cahoots w/ Musharraf) might have turned the other eye. I don't believe the latter, but the symbolism of the assassination occuring in Rawalpindi (the main garrison city for the Pakistani Army) certainly doesn't help. Bhutto's partisans (and others besides) are outraged at Musharraf, and this will not prove but a 24 hour phenomenon. Critical will be the reaction of the new Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiyani. While ostensibly a Musharraf loyalist, Kiyani will be observing very closely how Musharraf handles events in the coming weeks. If he declares another state of emergency and pushes back the elections currently slated for January 8th, Kiyani will be scrutinizing how Musharraf handles the inevitable disquiet that will result. On the other hand, if elections go forward--with the PPP (Bhutto's Party) casting about for a replacement leader (likely Ameen Fahim), and Nawaz Sharif threatening to boycott them--even a decision to proceed looks to be fraught with dangerous uncertainty.

What is also clear is that Pakistan is in desperate need of some measure of stability, as greater chaos will only serve to continue to strengthen Islamist radicals (including al-Qaeda, who as Bob Gates recently put it has increasingly of late "turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on the Pakistani government and Pakistan people." Rather than solely focus on the criticality of elections and look to politick on behalf of perceived friendly proxies (likely the Pavlovian response of many "experts" in Washington), we should instead be scouring the ranks of high-ranking Pakistani Army brass for mostly secular (or moderately Islamist) personnel reasonably sympathetic to the West, so as to at least identify possible replacements to an increasingly discredited Musharraf as prophylactic measure (in case orderly elections in the near term prove impossible or lead to bouts of violence). If the Army ends up having to step in more forcefully, and after an appropriate caretaker period (hopefully relatively short), the U.S. could then more effectively use its good offices to push for a coherent electoral process once reliable replacements to Bhutto emerge (or at least the massive flux currently consuming Pakistani politics steadies itself some), with Sharif's position better understood as well.

All this said, and despite the obvious fact that much of the U.S. aid going to Pakistan meant to be directed towards the war on terror (that increasingly asinine phrase, as empty as the "war on drugs" or "war on poverty") is actually in material fashion being used to back-stop Pakistan's position vis-a-vis India and Kashmir, it's nonetheless not the time to pull the rug out from under Musharraf whole-sale, but rather put out discreet, if serious, feelers to other players in the military that they may need to step in the lurch if popular anger at the current Government (as embodied by Musharraf) becomes untenable.

One last thing (I've been on a forced blog hiatus and time is very limited, though I do hope to catch up and discuss the Iran NIE, Annapolis, Iowa etc. and more in coming weeks), this type of 'village' idiocy, which reads like post-adolescent masturbatory drivel (sorry...), does need to be kept to a minimum in coming weeks, lest our policy-making class get carried away again towards other epic blunders. More soon, time permitting.

UPDATE: Via an E-mail from Nikolas Gvosdev (who blogs at the informative Washington Realist), comes this piece from Anatol Lieven.

For the moment, though, it may not be too cynical to suggest—and cynicism in analyzing Pakistani politics is rarely misplaced—that none of the possible successors to Ms Bhutto as PPP leader want to burn their bridges to the military, and thereby destroy the possibility that they will replace Ms Bhutto as Washington’s candidate for Prime Minister in an alliance with Musharraf or a military successor.

For if mass violence does spread, then sooner or later the senior generals will form a delegation and politely and respectfully ask Musharraf to step down as president, just as they did with General Ayub Khan forty years ago. The military will then conduct a “transition to democracy”, and will almost certainly have already decided in private to whom the government should in fact be transferred. With Musharraf and his hostility to Nawaz Sharif out of the way, that could well be Sharif, but it could equally be some PPP leader.

Whatever happens, however, the army will remain the most important force in the Pakistani state, and a key factor in every future Pakistani administration. And as long as the army sticks together, it will fight successfully to prevent both Islamist revolution and ethnic secession. Only if the army splits will Pakistan be in danger of disintegration, as opposed to violent unrest....the U.S. needs to develop a strategy based on an understanding of the limitations on any Pakistani government’s support for the U.S. in Afghanistan, given the feelings of the Pakistani population and much of the army. Ms Bhutto’s rule would not have provided a magic key to solve this dilemma, and nor will any future “return to democracy”. Trying to force a Pakistani government too far down this road will only increase the chances of Islamist unrest spreading to the Pakistani military.

As I said, focusing discreetly on key Pakistani Army actors in the weeks and months ahead seems prudent.

Posted by Gregory at 09:46 PM | Comments (62)

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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