As the bromides and bunkum of primary season lurch into caucus-eve overdrive in Iowa, the rest of the world has upstaged the election-addled news cycle. A new Osama bin Laden video, a Colombian hostage crisis and—most of all—the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto have made weary onlookers newly aware that there will be a long, grave to-do list awaiting whichever candidate prevails in the cartoonish 2008 presidential race.
Bhutto’s death marks the most sobering setback for the U.S. policy elite because it points up the absence of any coherent policy in the critical majority-Muslim nation, now the third-leading recipient of U.S. military aid, behind Israel and Egypt.
Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Bush White House has let American policy chime in unison with the interests of Pakistan’s strongman leader Pervez Musharraf—whom candidate George W. Bush famously failed to name in a 2000 campaign pop quiz on world affairs shortly after Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup. Indeed, the upcoming January Pakistan election—which may be delayed several weeks as Bhutto’s son and widower succeed her as joint leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party—marked the first significant U.S. deviation from its no-strings-attached commitment to shoring up General Musharraf’s increasingly authoritarian regime. State Department representatives let General Musharraf know that he would be expected to minimize tampering with this month’s Pakistani presidential ballot—which even in the best of times falls significantly short of “free and fair” status—while also relinquishing his leadership position in the always influential Pakistani military.
These were modest policy departures. But even so, observers of the region note, it was a tough sell to White House hardliners.
“The decision to try to be the broker of a deal between Benazir and Pervez was a divisive question in the White House,” says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year C.I.A. veteran who served as a South Asian national security adviser to the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and now is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The National Security Council and the vice president’s office had to be convinced under a lot of pressure to come around to this, and I suspect that their hearts were never fully in it.”
One stark measure of this lassitude was the clear alarm sounded by a pair of suicide-bomb attacks on pro-Bhutto crowds greeting the opposition candidate as she headed to the Karachi airport after a major rally in support of her candidacy. After the attack—which claimed the lives of more than 140 Pakistanis—Texas Democratic Representative Shelia Jackson Lee, who co-chairs the House Pakistan caucus, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice imploring the United States to pursue more active security measures in concert with the United Nations to ensure the safety of Bhutto, General Musharraf and other Pakistani political leaders. Senators Joseph Biden, Patrick Leahy and Joseph Lieberman sent a similar letter directly to General Musharraf—a legislative overture that wouldn’t be necessary if a more robust White House commitment to the security of Bhutto and other candidates were in place.
“Over the last two or three months, we’ve been crying ourselves hoarse to the United States and Musharraf to provide Madame Bhutto with more security,” says a U.S. representative of the P.P.P. who requested anonymity due to Pakistan’s volatile political state. “There were intimidation and harassment happening every night. In the middle of the night, I’d get an e-mail from one of her rallies saying there was full security on hand—and then, a few hours later, I’d hear that all the security was gone. These harassment tactics had been going on for months—and for God’s sake, this is a former prime minister we’re talking about.”
One can only hope that General Musharraf and his U.S. backers will step up security measures as Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and son, Bilawal Zardari, succeed to the P.P.P. leadership for the coming elections.
“The chance that this wasn’t going to happen at some point was small,” said Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East and South Asian intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Pakistan is a killing place. It was created out of an unstable mixture of people united by their varying ferocity over Islam.
“A great danger for Musharraf now comes from the fact that we insist that he be something—and that Pakistan be something—that they both are not,” Mr. Lang said. “I heard that idiot [Chris] Matthews say on his show the other night that the majority of Pakistanis are both moderate and secular. If we’re going to squeeze Musharraf hard to be something he isn’t, and can’t be, his position becomes ever more fragile. And an army coup or a successful assassination of Musharraf becomes, I think, a real possibility.”
While not all observers share Mr. Lang’s fatalism, there’s a growing sense that the country’s long-standing history of corruption and political violence may be veering past the point of no return.
“There never used to be any suicide bombings in Pakistan,” said the P.P.P. representative. “Yes, there’s been political violence, but it’s never been at this level, ever.”
Nor is the Pakistani Army—the source of General Musharraf’s now-waning legitimacy—immune from the spread of Islamist terrorism. Pakistan’s elite Inter-Services Intelligence have long collaborated with Taliban and Al Qaeda forces—the Taliban, indeed, owes its institutional origins to the I.S.I.’s early care and feeding. And now regular troops are starting to bow to the influence of extremists.
“What we’re seeing in the Pakistani army is unprecedented levels of desertion,” said Mr. Riedel. “You’ve got whole groups of Pakistani troops surrendering en masse when they come into contact with Taliban and Islamist forces.
“Pakistan is becoming a failed state,” Mr. Riedel said, “though it’s not yet there. A lot of the blame for that lies with the Pakistanis, but George W. Bush can’t escape some of that responsibility. We’ve been standing by this dictator for so long who has undermined civil society and supported extremists that we’ve left ourselves with few other choices.” As a result, he says, “the two most unpopular people in Pakistan today are General Musharraf and President Bush.”
That doesn’t exactly bode well for Bush’s successor, especially given the now lavish scale of American aid to the Musharraf regime—much of it scarcely tied to the fight against Islamic extremism. The United States “has been giving money for developing targets for the Pakistani Air Force and the Navy,” the P.P.P. representative says. “Well, the last time I looked, Al Qaeda had no air force or navy.”
Such lax oversight is all too characteristic, the representative says, of a White House seeking largely to wish away its own policy dilemmas and contradictions. “On the one hand, the U.S. says, ‘We don’t want to meddle ourselves in another country’s internal politics.’ But at the same time, they’ve sent this regime $10 billion over the past eight years. If you’ve bought the leverage, then why aren’t you using it?”