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SOMEONE TO TALK TO
- Why the US should not try to do an Iraq in Pakistan

Whenever a dictator ceases to be useful to the Americans, they begin to talk of democracy. They are doing so now about Pervez Musharraf. For India, it does not matter whether Pakistan is a dictatorship or a democracy so long as it is stable. But the affair of the sacked chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhury, is a weary reminder that stability will remain elusive until the United States of America changes tack.

The danger is not only to India but to the entire region. Applying Singapore’s “poisoned shrimp” analogy, Pakistan’s size and population make the poison more deadly. It threatens Afghanistan, Iran, India and the rest of the subcontinent. The prospect of a nuclear-armed rogue state, with some taliban-like organization acquiring control of the levers of power because Musharraf, like Zia-ul-Haq, will not keep his promise to restore civilian rule, is terrifying for all of Asia.

The US responded — over-reacted perhaps — to far less dangerous situations in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya. That they might all emanate from Pakistan is a possibility raised by the report, “Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the Rise of Proliferation Networks”, that London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies released recently. It discusses whether Khan also sold Iran and North Korea the nuclear blueprint he sold Muammar Gaddafi and offered Saddam Hussein.

What has not been established — because George W. Bush would rather it was not — is the extent of official complicity in Khan’s illicit trade. After all, it was only the uranium enrichment technology he stole from the Netherlands that enabled Pakistan to develop its weapons capability. Bush’s February 2004 announcement that Khan’s operation had ended might have been technically correct. But apart from the damage already done, the message was that Pakistan’s nuclear black market was not in America’s interest.

George Tenet, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, claims in his book, At the Center of the Storm, that Pakistan’s military investigation of Khan was prompted by the proof he presented Musharraf. Tenet had not just then stumbled upon the evidence. American intelligence agents stole blueprints for a “crude, but highly reliable, Hiroshima-sized weapon” from Khan’s suitcase as long ago as the early Eighties. But the evidence was always hushed up for political reasons.

The US needed Pakistan as a counterweight to India and for its diplomacy involving the Soviet Union/Russia, China and West Asia. And more recently, in Bush’s war on terror. Within Pakistan, it played off one power centre against another with lollipops of different colours, shapes, sizes and flavours so that the children did not close ranks against the fairy godmother but also did not squabble too much among themselves. When it was clear the military was making the bomb irrespective of Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister, the Clinton administration promised her F-16 fighters.

Internal power struggles reinforced US control. It was no part of American policy to strengthen the foundations of Pakistani civil society by ensuring that aid was used well. As Peter Galbraith, the economist’s diplomat son, reported, “in 1965 Pakistan’s per capita income was the same as that of Korea. Today, Korea’s is 10 times better than Pakistan’s.” Literacy declined from 37 per cent to 25 per cent because of the fortune squandered on nuclear weapons.

With the military and politicians undercutting each other, authority passed to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which accumulated massive power during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The CIA used it to conduit money and weapons to the mujahedin and provide training and other facilities for Osama bin Laden and his brethren. As a Pakistani academic in Britain noted when Nawaz Sharif was elected, no matter who wins an election, the ISI is the winner. This is the logical consequence of the events that began with Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958.

Imprisoning and harassing opposition politicians, misusing government machinery to frame, intimidate and humiliate opponents, muzzling the media and suppressing human rights have reportedly been instruments of governance since then. Ayub boasted with facile wit that Pakistanis did not need to bother with parliamentary democracy because as Muslims, they already enjoyed democracy’s objective of an egalitarian society.

In retrospect, his invocation of Islam offered an interesting link with the frenzy that is sweeping the Muslim ummah. It is not just the religion, but the fashionable Wahabi form of it that incites terrorist outrages. Even south-east Asian countries, with their ancient underpinning of Hindu culture reflected in language, literature, dress and customs, are trying to re-invent themselves in Saudi Arabia’s austere image. Java’s tiered indigenous mosques are giving way to domed structures; and the Javanese now secretly leave their flower offerings at statues of Ganesa and other Hindu deities.

Whether the people or their religion is to blame is a chicken-and-egg argument. It can be said that Pakistani authoritarianism began right at the start when Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as governor-general and president of the constituent assembly, also led the government. Despite his initial speech about a non-denominational Pakistani identity, he was soon urging his crack troops to uphold “Islamic democracy” and “Islamic social justice”.

Perhaps the failure of Pakistan’s political rationale accentuates religious fanaticism. The hope that it would become the chosen home of the subcontinent’s Muslims was belied. Kashmir, providing the “K” in Pakistan, opted for India. The eastern wing seceded. There is enough cause there for desperation even without incitement from outside or the paranoia of a general haunted by the fear that an independent judiciary would order him to choose between his uniform and political ambition if he wants to seek a credible electoral mandate.

Despite boasts of having raised Pakistan’s GDP, despite the “Pakistan without Musharraf is unacceptable” slogan heard of late, and despite Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s claims to “control” Karachi, a contrived Musharraf election victory would solve nothing. The unrest would continue until he is forced to step down or is removed so that another wobbly civilian government can take office. That will last only until the generals have gathered sufficient strength to strike again.

The US has now begun to look critically at a ruler whose pacts with the North Waziristan and Bajaur tribal leaders strengthen the suspicion that while he might be willing to suppress al Qaida, he is in secret cahoots with the taliban. As before the 2001 break under American pressure, he sees the taliban as a future counter against Indian influence in Afghanistan. Bush cannot any longer keep up the pretence that Musharraf needs more money and arms to stamp out terrorism: Pakistan is already the fifth largest recipient of American aid. Dick Cheney’s unscheduled February visit to Islamabad warned Musharraf that the Congress will not tolerate a repetition of the 2002 election when with two former prime ministers in exile, the six-party Islamist Mutahida Majlis Amal enjoyed a clear run. Musharraf finds its anti-American stance handy in negotiating with Bush. This time, however, the US Congress wants results.

“What we truly need in Pakistan is someone else to talk to,” New York’s representative, Gary Ackerman, is quoted as saying. “The administration seems content to only speak with President Musharraf and portrays him as the indispensable man. The truth is, for our goals to be achieved, there should be more than one phone number there to dial.”

The plea that no one else can take calls is ridiculous. The Americans abandoned protégés like Ngo Dinh Diem, Ferdinand Marcos, Syngman Rhee and the Shah of Iran when they outlived their usefulness. In Iraq, they turned to a discredited exile like Ahmed Chalabi. Instead of repeating these patterns in Pakistan, the US should ensure systemic reform, the rule of law and credible alternative candidates. A nation of 166 million is bound to have many leaders in waiting. But fundamentalists and fanatics are also lurking in the wings to seize power unless a smooth transfer can be arranged before time runs out for Musharraf.

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