Pakistan is facing a most defining moment in its history with serious implications to US security interests in the region. As stated in earlier analyses, the United States should have long ago adopted alternative approaches to Pakistan. It did not, and consequently, the situation in Pakistan today is much more dangerous. It is not, however, too late for the United States to re-engage more effectively. Here are some of the things it may consider doing:
Since 9/11, US strategy in Pakistan has been essentially built on two pillars: President Musharraf and Pakistan’s armed forces. Washington’s sole reliance on Musharraf and the military that he controlled had blind sighted US policy makers about the rising influence of the Taliban within Pakistan. For several years, Benazir Bhutto had tried unsuccessfully to draw Washington’s attention to the pervasive actions of a group within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that she referred to as the “Core.” Indeed, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been divided over its cooperation with Washington in the war on terror, because many in the ISI consider the Taliban as their own “baby” or asset. Why should they undermine the Taliban? From their perspective, this will cause more instability in the northwestern part of Pakistan and will deny Pakistan a powerful card with the potential for long term influence in neighboring Afghanistan. This has over the past several years enabled the Taliban to increase their influence in Pakistan and pose greater challenge to Musharraf’s leadership, culminating in the siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad last July. Ever since, the government’s power has been eroding fast and the military subjected to increased attacks by the Taliban and its radical allies. Unrest in many parts of the country and Musharraf’s abuses of power led to a popular revolt and culminated with parliamentary elections that brought to power the opposition led Pakistan’s People Party (PPP) of Asif Zardari (Bhutto’s husband) and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sahrif.
If President Musharraf insists on staying in power, Pakistan will face a period of political paralysis and instability which will benefit the Taliban and their radical allies. Washington needs a more stable Pakistan in order to prosecute more effectively its war against terror. Musharraf may be persuaded to peacefully step down if offered certain guarantees regarding his future. Washington may be able to help broker such an agreement between Musharraf and the two key leaders of the opposition, Zardari and Sharif. While Zardari is more amenable to such an agreement, getting Sharif on board will require some maneuvering. The Saudis may be of assistance on this front.
The new parliamentary majority led by the PPP and the PML (N) is united in its efforts to put an end to Musharraf’s rule and repair the damage done by Musharraf to the judiciary, but has no unified position vis-à-vis the war on terror, posing a major dilemma to the United Sates. Let me explain.
Sharif will challenge Pakistan’s current relationship with Washington and its cooperation in the war on terror in order to increase support among Pakistanis for his PML (N) party. The war on terror is very controversial to Muslims in Pakistan and is one that Sarrif can successfully exploit to his advantage while pushing Zardari to “take sides”. The PPP will ultimately have to go along with Sharif in order to avoid being accused of serving Washington’s interests at the expense of Pakistan’s. This will weaken if not disrupt Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington in the war on terror. On the other hand, any confrontation between the PPP and the PML (N) on the issue of the war of terror will lead to political paralysis and possible unrest in the country. Internal instability will serve the interests of the Taliban and its radical allies and will represent a major setback to US security interests in the region. Whichever way relations develop between thee PPP and the PML (N), Washington has to be very seriously concerned.
Reshaping the War on Terror
The current political conditions in Pakistan as described above pose a major challenge to Washington’s war on terror, but present also a unique opportunity for the United States to turn the page on a failing policy and usher in a more successful one. Washington’s new strategy should be built on four pillars:
Undermining the Taliban
Washington should borrow a chapter from Genral Petraeus book in Iraq. The Taliban draw their support primarily from the Pashtuns. Neither Zardari, who is a Sindhi, nor Sharif, who is a Punjabi, is a Pashtun. Washington’s military assistance should focus on recruiting tribal Pashtun leaders and arming them to fight the Taliban while simultaneously providing financial and social services to those areas.
Washington should reach out to the PPP and PML (N) with an enhanced economic assistance package to Pakistan. The nature of the debate within Pakistan about the latter’s relationship with Washington must change. Currently and increasingly, the debate is shaped by the perception that Pakistan’s relationship with the US is centered on waging a war against terror while causing great harm to Pakistan’s internal stability and national interests. By minimizing the talk about the war on terror and increasing in meaningful ways its economic assistance to Pakistan, Washington can affect more positively the debate on Pakistan-US relations.
Reforming the ISI
Washington should engage the new majority to assist them in reforming the ISI. Both Zardari and Sharif have had a bad history of experiences with the ISI and would welcome Washington’s assistance in this matter.
Washington should focus much more aggressively on curbing the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan employing successful counter-insurgency tactics. The Afghani-Pakistani theatres are intimately connected with deteriorating conditions in one theatre having a direct negative impact on conditions in the other.