Inside Washington, the frustration of doing business with Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is matched only by the fear of living life without him. For years, the notion that Musharraf is all that stands between Washington and a group of nuclear-armed mullahs has dictated just how far the White House feels it can push him to root out Al-Qaida and Taliban operatives who enjoy a relatively safe existence in Pakistan.
The spectre of Islamic radicals overthrowing Musharraf has also limited the Bush administration’s policy options, taking off the table any ideas about US military strikes against a resurgent Al-Qaida, which has camps in Pakistani tribal areas. But just how fragile is Musharraf’s hold on power? And might the US have more leverage than it believes?
The question of how to handle Musharraf is critical at a time when intelligence officials widely agree that the Taliban is expanding its reach in Pakistan.
The fear within Washington that Islamic extremism has become a dominant force in Pakistan has been stoked in part by Musharraf, himself. He often invokes the dangers of Islamic radicalism when meeting US officials in Washington and Islamabad, and his narrow escape in two assassination attempts is frequently cited by US President George W. Bush as evidence of his tenuous grip on power.
While the Islamists would surely take power in any way possible, an examination of polling data and recent election results—however suspect in a less than democratic country—provides little evidence that Islamists have enough support to take over the country.
The last time Pakistan went to the polls in 2002, religious political parties received just 11% of the vote, compared with more than 28% won by the secular party led by Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister. And that election may have even been a high-water mark for the Islamists, who were capitalizing on surging anti-American sentiment after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. In September, a poll by the International Republican Institute, a respected organization affiliated with the Republican Party that helps build democratic institutions in foreign countries, found that just 5.2% of respondents would vote for the main religious party, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, in national parliamentary elections.
For decades, the military has been the most dominant institution in Pakistan. If Musharraf were to fall to an assassin’s bullet, US diplomatic and intelligence officials say, it is unlikely that there would be mass uprisings in Lahore and Karachi, or that a religious leader in the Taliban mould would rise to power. “I am not particularly worried about an extremist government coming to power and getting hold of nuclear weapons,” said Robert Richer, who was associate director of operations in 2004 and 2005 for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Based on the succession plan, the vice-chief of the army, Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat, would take over as the leader of the army and Mohammedmian Soomro, a former banker, would become president. Hyat, who is secular like Musharraf, would hold the real power. But it is unclear whether Hyat would be as adept as Musharraf at keeping various interest groups within the military in line. US officials say that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, continues to play a direct role in arming and financing the Taliban’s re-emergence in western Pakistan.
While many in Washington agree that the threat of Islamic militants has become something of a useful foil for Musharraf, there is a rift about just how the White House should be treating the Pakistan President. Some counter-terrorism officials at the Pentagon argue that to the extent that Musharraf’s government feels real pressure, it is from those within the Pakistani military who worry most about alienating Washington and jeopardizing the flow of military aid to Pakistan. The money and military hardware from the US is crucial for Pakistan’s armed forces to keep pace with India. Because of this dependency, some officials argue, the Bush administration has powerful leverage to force Musharraf to crack down on extremism.
On the other side of the debate, some US state department officials say that while Islamic militants probably would not topple Musharraf, why roll the dice? Musharraf might be frustrating to work with, they say, but he has the virtue of being a known quantity. And with Iraq spiralling out of control and an emboldened Iran flexing its muscle throughout the region, aren’t things complicated enough without taking a chance on a nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 16.5 crore people?
In the US, he is considered the voice of moderation, but Musharraf has also navigated the often brutal world of Pakistani politics by keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. Although he speaks ominously about the Islamists’ rising power, he has regularly brokered agreements with them in the provinces as a way to gain allies amid the growing support nationally for civilian challengers like Navas Sharif and Bhutto.
Pakistan experts say this is smart politics, but the agreements have also effectively strengthened religious groups in the rural areas and made punishing Islamic militants in those areas more difficult.
Congress is unlikely to ever stem the flow of aid to Pakistan. But invoking congressional frustration with the country could play on Pakistani fears that the US is engaged in an ever tighter embrace with India. And within Pakistan, that is considered the greatest threat of all.