Democratic Pakistan: an American Conundrum

The euphoria over the successful democratic elections in Pakistan on February 18 has unleashed a torrent of commentary on what next for the US “War on Terror”? The biggest question that seems to be leading to sleepless nights in Foggy Bottom and parts of even academia it seems is whether a democratically elected government might now decide it is not in Pakistan’s interest to prosecute the US’s war in Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf had agreed to allow limited US operations from Pakistani soil but did not level with his own countrymen it seems. The story now breaking from the US is that the Predator drones that often attack targets inside Pakistan fly from a base in Pakistan.

Will a democratic government continue this practice of deception? In other words, was the US better off having an autocrat at the helm in Pakistan?

The latest hand-wringing statement on this conundrum comes from Graham Allison of Harvard, an expert on nuclear issues, who now has become an expert on foreign policy and Pakistan in particular. In his Op Ed, marked by some inaccuracies, in The Boston Globe he states:

A Pakistani government whose actions align with its citizen’s views on these issues would be at loggerheads with the United States.

Such misguided analysis miss the point that the reason why the Pakistani citizenry opposes the US is because the US supported a military regime for the past eight years in Pakistan against the people of Pakistan. Musharraf was seen by increasingly large numbers of Pakistanis as doing the US’ bidding and ignoring the wishes of his own people. Gradually, he lost the support of all major social groups that initially supported him: the intellectuals, the media, the lawyers.

Today Musharraf is isolated. No one in Pakistan speaks for him, except his own ex-military spokesman, who is paid to do so. Not even his King’s Party, the now discredited and defeated Pakistan Muslim League Q that has gone eerily silent. The only voices of support now seem to emerge from his few American well-wishers, like Allison, who are looking to maintain the comfortable old patron-client relationship between the US and Pakistan.

This confuses the ordinary Pakistani: Isn’t America supposed to welcome democracy? If so, why does it distrust it in Pakistan?

While the past history of Pakistan’s politicians is not one to inspire confidence, they have lived through difficult times in the past eight years and if they learned any lessons, it will be critical for them to put “Pakistan first” in everything that they do. Musharraf used that slogan too but never translated it into action. He put himself first. Indeed, it will be in Pakistan’s interest that the war on terror now becomes Pakistan’s own war, since the battles will be fought within Pakistan and not just militarily but also with economic and political weapons. For once, the Pakistan army will need to work in tandem with the political system to address the underlying issues that fostered the spread of Talibanization in Pakistan, as Musharraf’s regime dithered. If they cannot work together, the country faces dire prospects. And time is not on its side.

The challenge now facing the US is to accept this fledgling democracy and allow it to find its feet. And for Pakistan’s new government to be bold in attacking the insurgency with all the weapons at its command, not just military might. The deal making with the militants that failed Musharraf will fail the new government too. It’s a huge responsibility. But the new government should not sacrifice Pakistan’s sovereignty to the US’s short-term interest as the ancien regime did.