In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was a new and shaky U.S. ally. He decided to side with the Bush administration against al-Qaeda, but there were persistent reports that elements of his army still supported the Afghan Taliban. He was an autocratic ruler who had seized power in a military coup against a democratic government, but in a televised speech to his nation in January 2002, he promised to turn Pakistan into a tolerant, “moderate Muslim” society. Largely because it had little choice, the Bush administration decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Five years later, little in Pakistan has changed. Musharraf is still promising a moderate and tolerant regime — but there are still reports that his army is quietly helping the Taliban. He’s also still promising democracy — but just as in 2002, he’s preparing to rig Pakistan’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections to ensure that his term is extended and his power unchallenged.
What has changed is the response of the Bush administration. Five years ago it portrayed itself as giving Musharraf a chance to perform. Now it defends and apologizes for the general, despite his chronic failure to deliver.
The most recent example of this came 10 days ago, during a visit to the country by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Gastright. Islamabad was in an uproar over the news that Musharraf intends to seek a new five-year term next fall in a way that most of the country’s civilian politicians consider undemocratic and unconstitutional. The other subject of conversation was legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House during its “100 hours” blitz. It would condition future aid to the Pakistani military on Bush’s certification that Pakistan “is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control.”
The House measure, backed by the new Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, California’s Tom Lantos, was a logical response to recent reports by U.S. commanders that the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan and that cross-border movements of insurgents are increasing. But Gastright rushed to assure Musharraf’s government that the administration opposed it. “The president can certify that,” Gastright said of the Taliban metric without explaining the basis for his confidence. “The issue is, he shouldn’t have to.”
Gastright went on to endorse what he said were steps by Musharraf to promote press and political freedom ahead of the elections: “That’s an impressive track record,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. Then he said the administration was pleased with Musharraf’s handling of the greatest criminal proliferator of nuclear weapons in history, A.Q. Khan, who was quickly pardoned in 2004 and then shielded from U.S. or U.N. interrogation. Musharraf had “a superb record addressing the legacy of the A.Q. Khan network,” Gastright said.
It’s at this point in a column like this that administration officials pop up to point out that the relationship with Musharraf is “complicated,” that he has the right intentions and that he needs to be supported as well as urged to do more. Whatever his performance or lack of it, the argument goes, Musharraf is better than the alternatives in Pakistan, which include Islamic extremists and anti-Western generals. It’s the same argument that’s used to defend continued U.S. pandering to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In Musharraf’s case it’s particularly perverse. That’s because the second most popular leader in Pakistan behind Musharraf, according to polling by the International Republican Institute, is not an Islamist but former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the moderate and pro-Western Pakistan People’s Party. Bhutto and her party have made it clear that they would be willing to accept Musharraf in exchange for fair parliamentary elections and an end to criminal charges that keep Bhutto in exile. The PPP and the Muslim League party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have formed the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy; they are the obvious partners for a government that genuinely aims to modernize the country and marginalize Islamic extremism.
Only Musharraf refuses to deal with them. His supporters say he intends to extend his mandate by staging a presidential vote by the existing parliament and provincial assemblies — which make up Pakistan’s equivalent of the electoral college — though they were elected in the rigged balloting of 2002 and their terms expire on the same day as the president’s. For that maneuver he won’t need Bhutto or Sharif or their parties — and so he won’t have to meet their demands for fair parliamentary elections.
In private, the Bush administration has been urging Musharraf for some time to come to terms with Pakistan’s moderate democrats. And they’ve been asking him for years to stop allowing sanctuary for the Taliban. He’s not responding. So what’s wrong with congressional conditions? They might just produce what’s been missing from Musharraf the past five years: results.Top