Now we've really got problems.
The state of emergency in Pakistan signals yet another low point in President George W. Bush's foreign policy—a stark demonstration of his paltry influence and his bankrupt principles. More than that, the crackdown locks us in a crisis—a potentially dangerous dynamic—from which there appears to be no escape route.
For much of last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top U.S. officials had been urging Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, not to declare martial law. He not only ignored these pleas; he defied them.
Last month, Rice persuaded Musharraf to let exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto back in the country—and persuaded Bhutto to go back—as part of a power-sharing deal. The idea was that Musharraf, who doubles as army chief of staff, would retain control of the military in the fight against terrorism, while Bhutto would attract the loyalty of Pakistan's increasingly discontented democrats. That ploy, too, turned out to be illusory: Bhutto was attacked the moment she got back; Musharraf showed no interest in sharing power.
Musharraf is portraying his suspension of the constitution as a necessary step to stabilize Pakistan and fend off Islamist terrorists. Yet the timing suggests it was, for the most part, a power grab. Pakistan's Supreme Court was about to rule that Musharraf's reign as both president and army chief of staff was unconstitutional. That meant the coming elections (which may or may not now be called off) would have ended his reign. And so he dissolved the court. He also arrested many democratic activists and shut down the nation's independent media.
It should now be clear, if it wasn't already, that Musharraf has been diddling Bush & Co. the past three years or longer.
In exchange for his promises to root out Taliban terrorists on the Afghan border and within Pakistan's own intelligence service, Bush has supplied Musharraf with at least $10 billion in aid. Yet while Musharraf has rendered considerable assistance in the war on terrorism, the Taliban—and possibly Osama Bin Laden himself—retain their sanctuary in Pakistan's northwest territories.
In exchange for Musharraf's promises to be a good democrat someday, Bush has declared Pakistan to be a "major non-NATO ally." Yet, with his strategically timed state of emergency, Musharraf has revealed he's not at all interested in democratic transitions.
But what can Bush—or his successor—do about it? The problem is that there's some truth to Musharraf's official reason for his crackdown. He has been going after al-Qaida jihadists, especially those inside his own country, though not so much Taliban fighters on the border of Afghanistan. And he is in a genuinely tight spot. On the one hand, he fears what some Western officials call the "Talibanization of Pakistan." On the other hand, he can't go after them too avidly, for fear of sparking a backlash from some of his own officers who have Islamist sympathies and who don't want to be seen as fighting America's war.
As Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on south Asia, wrote last summer in Foreign Affairs magazine, the army is "Pakistan's strongest government institution and the only one that can possibly deal with immediate threats of violent militancy and terrorism."
If the United States were to respond to this power grab by cutting off aid to the Pakistani army, the army would turn elsewhere—and the Islamist factions would be strengthened. If the United States were to cut its links to Musharraf … well, Musharraf is the face of the Pakistani army. If he goes, probably some other strongman would take his place, but the tenuous coalition he has assembled could fall apart in the process, with unpredictable—but almost certainly unpleasant—results.
And let's not forget the ultimate unpleasant fact: Pakistan has a test-proven nuclear arsenal.
Someone was speculating this morning on the BBC that the Bush administration might have a secret ally, an agent of sorts, within the Pakistani military command, poised to step in and serve U.S. interests if Musharraf fell. This is very doubtful. First, there are the obvious reasons (Bush's intense commitment to Musharraf and the military's relative impenetrability). Second, if Bush did have some fallback leader, it's unlikely Rice would have put so much effort—however fruitless the gesture now seems—to getting Bhutto back in the country for a power-sharing gambit. Nor, by the way, are there any civilian politicians in whom the United States could put its hopes; as Daniel Markey indicates in his article (and he is far from alone in this view), there are no civilian politicians, parties, or other entities that could exercise power without the military's nod.
This is why the Bush administration's response to the clampdown has been, as they say, "muted." The fact is, the United States needs Musharraf more than Musharraf needs the United States. And the fact that he's rubbing our noses in it doesn't make it any less true.