Why The General Amnesty?

Indian Express, July 19, 2004

The US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said last week that Taliban-led militants continue to operate from safe havens in Pakistan, notwithstanding that country’s description by the Bush administration as a key ally in the war against terrorism. According to Khalilzad, Pakistan’s reported crackdown against militants and tribesmen along its border with Afghanistan has dealt with only part of the problem. ‘‘The problem is obviously larger,’’ he was quoted as saying.

Khalilzad’s criticism does not alter the overall US policy of praising Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, for supporting the US after withdrawing support from the Taliban in September 2001. It highlights a structural problem in America’s relationship with Pakistan and in Pakistan’s internal politics. In an effort to ensure Musharraf’s cooperation in the hunt for arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden, the US maintains diplomatic silence on a range of issues involving Pakistan, from human rights violations to selling nuclear weapons technology to third countries. Pakistan’s selective cooperation with the US has led to the arrest of several Al Qaeda members and is important for the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his leading deputies. For this reason, the US has even looked the other way over illicit transfers of nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea—a subject that at any other time would certainly have invited considerable scrutiny and criticism from Washington.

But giving Pakistan’s military rulers a free pass has historically served only to embolden them in pursuing contradictory policies—the larger problem alluded to by the US Ambassador in Kabul. Praise by US presidents lulls Pakistan’s military leaders into a false sense of security and a feeling of things being under control when they are in fact falling apart. During the 1971 Bangladesh crisis, for example, the US felt it was under an obligation to repay General Yahya Khan for his role as a facilitator of Henry Kissinger’s secret contacts with China. For this reason, the Nixon White House tilted in Pakistan’s favour and ignored suggestions by Congress and the State Department that Yahya Khan be pressed for a political solution in erstwhile East Pakistan.

According to Kissinger’s memoirs, the US realised the gravity of the problem fairly early and knew that only a political solution would work. But because Washington applied no public pressure on Pakistan, Yahya Khan did not grasp the significance or urgency of a political solution. He continued to apply military force in East Pakistan and deluded himself into believing that the US would pull his chestnuts out of the fire. Several books on the subject of the Bangladesh crisis, written by Pakistanis as well as Americans, point out how Pakistan’s generals believe in the omnipotence of America and how both Pakistan and the US would have been better served by straighter talk by Washington in 1971. Unless America tells Pakistan’s ruling generals their inadequacies, their ability to delude themselves is endless.

With the promise of a multi-year $3 billion US aid package under his belt, Musharraf is following the example of his predecessors in consolidating military rule. Like Yahya Khan, he has a National Security Council and a belief in his infallibility. The US has waived democracy-related sanctions against Pakistan, promised $600 million in annual aid for the next five years and helped Pakistan secure $1.7 billion each year from international financial institutions like IMF, World Bank and ADB.

But the benefits of this alliance to the US and ordinary Pakistanis are gradually diminishing. US support is only reinforcing the military’s domination of Pakistan and deluding the country’s rulers into thinking that they’re on the right track. Instead of giving General Musharraf a free pass, the US would gain more by holding his regime accountable for its conflicting policies. So would Pakistan, which needs long-term political stability at home and an understanding of its strategic limits abroad.

General Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, claims that he wants to transform Pakistan into a moderate Muslim nation. But his performance is, at best, mixed. He represents the tradition of US-backed military strongmen that goes back to the Cold War and that is part of Pakistan’s problem, not its solution. Despite proclaiming his desire to improve the living conditions of Pakistanis, so that they are not tempted to become militant Islamists, General Musharraf continues to shop for expensive military hardware. He was recently in Sweden, seeking an Erieye airborne radar system made by Ericsson and Saab’s JAS Gripen fighter planes. Russia, too, has been eyed as a potential supplier for military hardware.

Shopping for military equipment soon after starting a peace process with India, and at a time when the number of Pakistanis living below the poverty line—already one-third of the population—is increasing, demonstrates General Musharraf’s misplaced priorities. It also illustrates how the Pakistani military leader can say one thing and do another. Only a few days earlier, he had declared, to Washington’s praise, that the real threat to Pakistan came from terrorists and militants within the country. Surely airborne radar systems and fighter planes are not weapons Pakistan needs to fight this threat, which can best be fought with higher social sector spending and an inclusive democracy that isolates extremists.

Unfortunately, India has provided Pakistan’s rulers with justification for expanded military purchases by increasing the Indian military budget. But Pakistan’s relatively weaker economic position requires a more realistic analysis of its security needs than can be justified by a desire to keep pace with India. As Air Marshal Asghar Khan recently pointed out, Pakistan must trim its conventional weapons expenditure now that it enjoys the protection of a nuclear deterrent. A weak internal polity, a narrowly based economy, insufficient law and order, and a military-intelligence apparatus obsessed with strategic delusions are major threats to Pakistan’s survival and prosperity. None of these is being fully addressed by the Musharraf regime.

Pakistan has a long history of US-backed military regimes achieving high economic growth rates and a mirage of socio-political reform in the short-term, without long-term stability in the country. Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s decade of reforms (1958-69), General Yahya Khan’s phased return to democracy (1969-71) and General Ziaul Haq’s efforts at building a ‘true Islamic state’ (1977-1988) all followed a similar course. Each time, one problem was solved while several others were created. The US did not check Ayub Khan when he started believing that his alliance with the US was the key to a military settlement of the Kashmir problem. Even after the 1965 war had started, and the US had suspended military supplies to both India and Pakistan, Ayub Khan continued to argue for US intervention on behalf of Pakistan. General Yahya Khan waited for US military action to save East Pakistan when none had been promised. General Ziaul Haq did not foresee the Russians withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Americans losing interest soon thereafter. Now Musharraf, too, is riding high on the assuption that American support is the key to his longevity and Pakistan’s future.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is right in drawing attention to the larger problem in Pakistan, one that comes from multiple layers of government and shadowplays based on strategic notions unsupported by reality. Just as US economic and military aid has strengthened the Musharraf regime, Musharraf’s inability to practise inclusive politics and the absence of political forces opposed to Islamist militancy have emboldened Pakistan’s militant Jihadis. Pakistan’s stated policy direction under General Musharraf and its various practices are not necessarily in alignment.

In democracies, policy is final once it has been approved by a vote of the majority. In Pakistan’s unique system of military ascendancy, there is no finality to a policy. Different branches of government and different groups outside the government can pursue their own policies because they consider these in the national interest in an ideological state. The absence of democracy in Pakistan means the absence of legitimacy of crucial decisions. In a country whose generals believe that American support is their passport to indefinite rule, the US has an obligation to frequently ring alarm bells. The US can continue to support General Musharraf if it must but it should also question his intentions and actions. And it should certainly tell him when his decisions exacerbate Pakistan’s drift towards crisis.