The Musharraf Problem
By BARNETT R. RUBIN
Wall Street Journal (Reprinted with permission)
December 29, 2007; Page A11
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was probably a strategic attack by al Qaeda and its local allies — the Pakistani Taliban — aimed at achieving Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most pressing political objective: destabilizing the government of Pakistan, the nuclear-armed country where al Qaeda has re-established the safe haven it lost in Afghanistan.
Many in Pakistan nevertheless will blame their own military, which has failed to stop the suicide bombings over the past five years, including that of Bhutto’s motorcade in Karachi in October. Pakistani intelligence now claims to have intercepted a phone call from Baitullah Mahsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, offering congratulations for the operation. It may be true. But the skepticism with which this announcement was greeted in Pakistan shows that the Bush administration’s strategy of trying to shore up the power of President (former general) Pervez Musharraf cannot work. Even if it is innocent of involvement in this assassination, the Pakistan military under Mr. Musharraf has no intention of ceding power to civilians.
Pakistani newspapers have already published what they claim are the planned results of the rigged elections. Nothing short of a genuine transition to democracy that replaces rather than complements military rule has a chance of establishing a government with the capacity to regain control of the country’s territory and marginalize the militants.
The murder of Bhutto was not just an attempt to derail Pakistani democracy, or prevent an enlightened Muslim woman from taking power. It was a counterattack, apparently by the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda, against a U.S.-backed transition from direct to indirect military rule in Pakistan by brokering a forced marriage of “moderates.”
According to last July’s National Intelligence Estimate on the al Qaeda threat, bin Laden has re-established his sanctuary in the Pakistani tribal agencies. According to a report by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, the suicide bombers for Pakistan and Afghanistan are trained in these agencies.
Most global terrorist plots since 9/11 can be traced back to these areas. And Pakistan’s military regime, not Iran, has been the main source of rogue nuclear proliferation. It is therefore the U.S. partnership with military rulers in Pakistan that has been and is the problem, not the solution.
Last September, bin Laden released a video declaring jihad on the Pakistani government. When Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile on Oct. 18 — as part of a U.S.-backed strategy to shore up Musharraf’s power through elections — her motorcade was bombed as it passed by several military bases in Karachi, killing over 100.
In October and November, groups allied with the Pakistani Taliban captured several districts in Swat, in the Northwest Frontier Province, not in the tribal agencies. When I was in Pakistan in early November, I was told that this offensive was part of a larger effort by the Pakistani Taliban to surround Peshawar, capital of NWFP, and put increasing pressure on nearby Islamabad, the capital. The next key step, I was told on Nov. 5, would be an attack on Charsadda, northeast of Peshawar, on the Muslim feast of ‘Id al-Adha.
Sure enough, on Dec. 21 a suicide bomber killed around 50 people during ‘Id worship in Charsadda. This suicide attack followed by a week the announcement that leaders of various Taliban groups had agreed to establish a common organization — the Taliban Movement of Pakistan — under the command of Baitullah Mahsud, the Taliban commander in the South Waziristan Tribal Agency, where the meeting took place.
But if bin Laden declared jihad against Mr. Musharraf, Pakistan’s leader saw greater threats elsewhere. When he declared an emergency on Nov. 3, he was responding mainly to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which was about to rule that his standing for president while a serving general violated the constitution. Mr. Musharraf continued the longstanding policy of the Pakistani military of putting its own power, justified by the Indian threat, ahead of all other concerns.
Mr. Musharraf dissolved the Supreme Court and arrested thousands of democratic opponents before sending the army to recapture portions of Swat. His priorities — seeing unarmed civilian opponents as the main threat to the country — helps explain why many Pakistanis believe that the military is behind Bhutto’s assassination.
These priorities are consistent with the message that Mr. Musharraf has been sending for years. On Sept. 19, 2001, he told the Pakistani public that he would support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan in order to “save Afghanistan and Taliban, ensure that they suffer minimum losses.” He presented Pakistan’s support for U.S. efforts against the Taliban as reluctant compliance, required to assure the security of Pakistan from India.
Bhutto, however, had started to present a different message: that the people of Pakistan want a government and a state that serves them, not a state that serves the military’s pursuit of a failed strategic mission. She spoke of the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaeda backers as the greatest threat to the country. She and other parties proposed to extend civil authority over the tribal agencies, ending their role as a platform for covert actions.
An interim of emergency rule and the postponement of national elections may now be inevitable. But if the military re-imposes martial law, further guts Pakistan’s judiciary and legal system, and blocks democratization, Pakistan’s people will resist.
For the first time in the history of Pakistan, respect for the military as an institution has plummeted. The vacuum of authority and legitimacy created by military rule will provide the Taliban and al Qaeda the opportunity they seek.
The Bush administration’s nightmare scenario — the convergence of terrorism and nuclear weapons — is happening right now, and in Pakistan, not in Iraq or Iran. Yet as recently as Dec. 11, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, speaking to the House Armed Services Committee with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly mentioned Pakistan, and characterized Afghanistan as second in priority to Iraq.
It is critical that the Bush administration put Pakistan and Afghanistan where they should have been for the past six years: at the top of this country’s security agenda. The most fitting memorial to Bhutto would be to recognize that the battle for a democratic Pakistan is the centerpiece of the global fight against terrorism.
Mr. Rubin is the director of studies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and the author of “The Fragmentation of Afghanistan” (2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2002).