General Pervez Musharraf’s resignation on August 18 brings to an end an era of unprecedented Pakistani cooperation with the United States on foreign policy and security needs. It also marks the beginning of a new negotiation between the two allies as the United States seeks fresh reassurances of Pakistan’s cooperation in the “war on terror”, and Pakistan seeks a new relationship under different terms and circumstances with the United States.
This is a critical year for US-Pakistan relations. With Musharraf’s resignation and, in a few months, President George W. Bush’s departure from power, both countries will be reformulating their policies and priorities. And by the summer of 2009, we will witness a new geo-political paradigm that will dictate how the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan relate to each other.
For two years prior to 9/11, from 1999 to 2001, Musharraf was seen as a dictator who had subverted Pakistan’s democracy and thumbed his nose at the West, and was shunned by the United States and its allies. But overnight he became America’s staunchest ally against terrorism and was welcomed as a friend in London and Washington.
While the so-called “war on terror” first brought prominence and popularity for Musharraf, it later brought defeat and disgrace. Musharraf’s decision to abandon the Taliban, once an ally and an asset to Pakistan, to join the United States made him an instant hit in the West as well as with many Pakistanis.
A broad segment of Pakistanis applauded his decision to ignore 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.
Since 2007, however, Musharraf had become a serial failure. The Taliban and al Qaeda continued to consolidate and both the United States and Afghanistan started blaming him for all the failures of the coalition in the region. For Pakistanis it became obvious that their country had now become a partially failed state heading towards disaster, and the government was still more concerned with Washington’s needs than its own national interest.
The perception that Musharraf had become Washington’s man united the extremists and the moderates, the secularists and the politically religious. The key virtue that made Musharraf popular was his insistence that his policies were in the national interest. And when this claim lost its credibility in the eyes of the Pakistani people, he quickly became a “US agent”.
When one talks to Pakistanis, their anger and frustration with the United States and with the political realities of their own nation is palpable. “Yes”, they say, “3,000 innocent Americans died on September 11, 2001, but hundreds of thousands of Muslims have died in the aftermath.”
Pakistanis have started to react 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.
Now, with Musharraf gone, the United States is without an ally and without a policy, for its policy in the region was Musharraf.
The Pakistani leadership is now in fundamental disagreement with American methods. It feels that Pakistan’s extremism problem cannot be done away with by use of force. It also feels that the United States 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 radicalised.
The solution, according to many in the new government, will come slowly through peaceful means and through compromise. Basically, they are pursuing accommodation with the Taliban while the United States seeks elimination.
Unless the United States agrees to play ball on Pakistan’s terms, it will have to pursue its goals without any active help from Islamabad and perhaps even in the face of covert, active opposition from the Pakistani intelligence and military.
From the outset, the US policy of reliance on Musharraf and on force was an unwise strategy. It has failed completely. Osama bin Laden is still free and al Qaeda is strong and active. The Taliban are still around and they are much stronger now, chipping away at NATO’s resolve. Pakistan, a nuclear state and a long-time US ally, is destabilised and becoming increasingly unfriendly and heavily radicalised.
Unless Washington acknowledges its errors and adopts a new policy — one made in consultation with Islamabad and sensible voices in America, all stakeholders — NATO, the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan — are in for tough times ahead.
US-Pakistan relations are now at a critical juncture. It is imperative that both sides handle the crisis with respect for each other’s interests and with recognition of the fact that they both need each other.