After lavishing praise, political support and military aid on Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf for seven years, the Bush administration is curiously ambiguous in its attitude toward the country’s four-month-old democratic government.
In public, President Bush this week was full of praise and promises of economic aid and cooperation during the visit of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani.
But at the same time Bush was pledging to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty — a sensitive issue in Pakistan — the U.S. unofficially confirmed that it had launched a missile strike into Pakistani territory targeting top al-Qaida operative Abu Khabab al-Masri.
Pretty clearly, there’s a wink-wink arrangement between Pakistan and the U.S. about such operations, but surely the U.S. could have kept quiet about the attack, at least during the prime minister’s visit.
Moreover, despite Gillani’s fervent pledges that his government would fight terrorism — “the war on terror is not just an American fight. We in Pakistan are fighting for our very soul,” he said — U.S. officials kept up a drumbeat of skepticism about whether Gillani’s government had the ability or the will to control the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s perfectly legitimate for the United States to want action out of Pakistan to stop cross-border attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the administration exhibits a level of impatience toward the barely installed new government that it rarely betrayed toward Musharraf, still the country’s president.
Moreover, the CIA took the opportunity of Gillani’s visit to dump a front-page story into the New York Times detailing revelations made by high-level U.S. officials this month to Pakistani officials that elements of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, are colluding with Muslim extremist elements and even helping plan operations in Afghanistan.
The implication was that the CIA expected Gillani’s government to get the ISI under control — something it actually tried to do just recently, briefly placing ISI under the civilian interior ministry, only to have to rescind the order under pressure.
An embarrassed Gillani was forced to defend his government on U.S. television, saying that allegations about the ISI were “not believable” and “we would not allow that” when, in fact, officials of his Pakistan Peoples Party have been complaining for years that Musharraf tolerated ISI links to terrorists and that the U.S. knew all about it.
The CIA has had a close, even symbiotic relationship with ISI ever since it co-sponsored mujahedeen operations in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, an activity memorialized in the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Some former mujahedeen are now Taliban, still assisted by the ISI and now in cahoots with al-Qaida — as if the CIA didn’t know.
On top of all this, PPP officials are convinced that ISI officials had a hand in the assassination of their leader, Benazir Bhutto, last December — so professionally was it carried out and so quickly was forensic evidence obliterated afterward.
PPP officials had urgently appealed to the Bush administration to demand that Musharraf give adequate security for Bhutto, which never was provided. And Musharraf got support from Bush when he refused to accept a United Nations investigation into the assassination.
Now, the administration thankfully is supporting the U.N. probe. If the CIA has information that the ISI was involved, it surely ought to be providing it to the U.N.
As Gillani described his government’s anti-terror effort in a speech Monday night: “This is not Charlie Wilson’s war. It is Benazir Bhutto’s war. … There should be absolutely no doubt about our commitment to fight terrorism.”
But, in Pakistan, Bush’s way of fighting terrorism is hugely unpopular. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute showed that only 15 percent supported it and 71 percent opposed.
The U.S. is mainly unpopular because of Bush’s ardent backing for Musharraf, whom 83 percent of Pakistanis want deposed. In late May, Musharraf was reported to be on the verge of resignation when the White House announced that Bush had called him and expressed hope that he would have “a continuing role.” He stayed.
Now that democracy has returned to Pakistan — only 5 percent of voters supported extreme Islamic parties in February elections — the Bush administration ought to give it wholehearted support.
The administration is supporting legislation introduced by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) to supply $15 billion in economic aid over 10 years. It is also backing creation of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones and a social development plan in the border region.
The Gillani government’s plan to engage with tribal leaders and get them to turn against terrorists may or may not work — Musharraf’s effort didn’t — but the promise of long-term aid may help and deserves a try.
The administration has every right to pressure Pakistan to stop serving as a sanctuary for extremists. But a fragile new democracy deserves the courtesy of quieter diplomacy.