General Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 military coup was celebrated on the streets in Pakistan and was seen as a coup against Washington, backed on latent anti-Americanism. Not surprisingly, his resignation as President is being seen the same way.
The war on terror first brought prominence and popularity for General Musharraf, followed some time later by defeat and disgrace. General Musharraf has been Washington’s primary ally since 2001 in its war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His decision to abandon the Taliban, an ally and an asset of Pakistan, to join the US made him an instant hit among the majority of Pakistanis and in the West. For two years (1999-2001) he was seen as a dictator who had subverted Pakistan’s democracy and thumbed his nose at the West and was shunned by US and its allies. But overnight, he became America’s staunchest ally against terrorism and was welcome as a friend in London and Washington.
In the beginning, a broad segment of Pakistani’s applauded his decision to ignore Islamic sentimentality and praised his realism. His decision to abandon the Taliban was seen as the right thing to do because it was in Pakistan’s national interest. Interestingly, I think that for the first time in Pakistan’s history, its national interests were being articulated in secular terms and divorced from Islamic interests. Subsequently, Musharraf’s Pakistan became a bulwark for secularism and moderation against Islamism and extremism. The stability and relatively less corrupt governance brought in by the military were welcomed by most in Pakistan and made General Musharraf a national hero. The huge [over $11 billion] economic and military assistance that the US poured into Pakistan further cemented Musharraf’s popularity and control over Pakistani institutions.
By 2007, however, things began to unravel fast in the Afghan-Pakistan theater. The failure of Pakistani military to arrest and roll back the growing influence of Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, in conjunction with the inability of the US and NATO to do the same in Afghanistan, has protracted a war which has taken the lives of thousands of innocent people. Both Western allies and Muslim extremists have killed large number of civilians. There is no personal security anymore in Pakistan. Anyone can die at any time. General insecurity combined with mounting civilian casualties have slowly “Talibanized” the broader perception in Pakistan, and people turned against the US and its “Pakistani poodle” Musharraf.
In the last three years (2006-2008), Musharraf’s policies essentially saw him unleashing the army and security forces against his own citizens to advance American security. His legitimacy hinged on the belief that he was doing what was necessary and good for Pakistan. But it became very difficult to understand how killing one’s own population, raiding mosques, and allowing foreign countries to bomb its own people were in the national interest. Add to this the anti-Islam rhetoric coming from the Bush administration’s neoconservative allies, the unjustified invasion and subsequent disaster in Iraq, and the Israeli destruction in Lebanon, and it is easy to see why more and more Pakistanis began to feel that the US was waging a world war to destroy Islam, and that Musharraf had become a key instrument in this crusade.
Since 2007, Musharraf has been a serial failure. The Taliban and Al Qaeda continued to consolidate, and both the US and Afghanistan started blaming him for all the failures of the western alliance in the region. For Pakistanis, it became increasingly obvious that as Pakistan moved towards being a partially failed state heading towards disaster, the government was still more concerned about Washington’s needs than the Pakistani national interest. The perception that Musharraf had become a Washington tool united the extremists and the moderates, the secularists and the Islamists.
American policy choices, especially its heavy reliance on the use of force both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, has led to the steady loss of life and property and a concomitant rise in anti-Americanism in the region. Most people in the region now believe that Americans have little regard for their lives and their values and see Islam continuously being attacked and demonized in the West. The cartoon episode in Denmark, the constant vilification of Islam and its symbols in Western media – especially on the Internet – and the close affiliation of Western leaders with prominent Islamophobes have all contributed to seething anger and frustration among the moderate and silent majority.
When one talks to both ordinary and elite Pakistanis, an anger and frustration with the US, along with the political realities of their own nation, is palpable. “Yes, three thousand innocent Americans died on September 11th, 2001,” they say, “but hundreds of thousands of Muslims have died in the aftermath.” Pakistanis have started to push back, and kicking Musharraf out is the first step.
The end of Musharraf, I suspect, is just the beginning of a dangerous turn that Pakistan has now taken.
Parvez Musharraf was crucial to US’s war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. For a few billion dollars, he brought an army, an intelligence service, special insights into Islamist groups in the area and the freedom to operate in and from Pakistan. The Pakistani military not only suffered over 2,500 deaths in the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban in its border provinces, it also took part of the blame for the civilians killed in the process. Without Musharraf, the US will have to engage in such military operations by itself, suffer similar casualties, and also shoulder the blame for the civilians killed. But without the cooperation of the governments in Kabul and Islamabad, the US cannot operate in the area. Even with their support, it has not achieved its goals in seven years.
Now with Musharraf gone the US is without an ally and without a policy, for its policy in the region was Musharraf.
Mushrraf’s resignation is a big blow to the US. The US will have to negotiate with various political parties and the army separately, and no one is in position to provide the same degree of cooperation to the US. Unlike Musharraf, the current leadership is wary and suspicious of the US, and because it enjoys democratic legitimacy it is in a better position to reject many of American demands. America’s task of maintaining Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror has increased manifold.
The Pakistani leadership is now in fundamental disagreement with the methods of the US. They feel that Pakistan’s extremism problem cannot be done away with by use of force, and that the US is part of the problem. US policies in the region fuel extremism, and the heavy handed use of force further alienates those who are not radicalized. Any resolution, they feel, will come slowly through peaceful means and through compromise. Basically, the new Pakistani leadership is pursuing accommodation as opposed to elimination.
Unless the US agrees to play ball on Pakistani terms, it will have to pursue its goals without any active help from Islamabad and perhaps with covert, active opposition from Pakistani intelligence and military.
From the outset, America’s policy of reliance on Musharraf and force was an unwise strategy that has proven to be a complete failure. Bin Laden is still free, and Al Qaeda is strong and active. The Taliban still operate along the border, chipping away at NATO’s resolve with increasing strength. Pakistan, a nuclear state and a longtime US ally, is now partially a failed state, distrustful of the US, and heavily radicalized. Unless Washington acknowledges its errors and adopts a new policy – one made in consultation with Islamabad and sensible voices in America (the ones that neocons hate) – NATO, the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are all in for tough times ahead.