Pakistan is one of the most dangerous states in the world today, many observers have postulated, with the spread of militant Islamic radicalism threatening total destabilization in a nation armed with nuclear weapons. The US government has taken the position that it is better to support the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, deemed a “moderate” and regarded as a strong “ally” in the US “war on terrorism,” than to risk the spread of radicalism and perhaps even the possibility that the Taliban or al-Qaeda might get their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Thus, the US government has remained fully committed to its support for Musharraf, even as he has declared a state of emergency and attempted to consolidate his power by suspending the constitution and suppressing his political opposition.
The threat, though perhaps exaggerated, is real. But the choice presented, between supporting a dictator or allowing terrorists and radicals to overrun the country, is a false one. Pakistan is certainly in a state of crisis today, but to present the situation in such a framework, where democracy is necessarily sacrificed for security, is to specifically preclude the possibility for a solution that would both mitigate the threat of terrorism and help foster the growth of democracy. Such a solution is possible, but US policies are decreasing the likelihood that it could ever occur.
The radical and terrorist elements in Pakistan represent a minority, and moderates in favor of democratic reforms are far greater in number. Although members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda fleeing to Pakistan as a result of the US’s war in Afghanistan were initially welcomed by many Pakistanis because of shared opposition to the US war, the growth of strict, Taliban-style interpretation of Islam has resulted in many local populations now being oppressed by those whom were initially regarded as guests. These Pakistanis now long for an end to the radical militancy that has flooded their towns, as well as for an end to a dictatorship that they feel doesn’t represent them or act in their best interests.
So, while the White House is correct to point out that the solution for the present crisis in Pakistan is for the country to make efforts to implement democracy, this is the very solution that is effectively precluded within the existing framework for discussion accepted by government officials and media commentators. The framework consists of a false dichotomy and fails to acknowledge that the US itself is largely responsible for creating the present state of affairs. By accepting a framework which rejects this embarrassing and inconvenient truth, the possibility that we might actually learn from our past actions and their consequences is also precluded. As a result, the options presented for the best way forward are extremely limited and will serve not to precipitate positive change, but only to maintain the status quo.
In order to be able to make an intelligent decision about what direction to take from here, it’s essential to recognize where the present day threat of radicalism and terrorism had its roots—widely known but rarely regarded as remarkable in critical analysis of the present situation.
Al-Qaeda, or “The Base”, was an organization that was created to help foster and support the Afghan mujahedeen, or holy warriors, against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Such groups were sponsored in turn by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which was working closely with the CIA to finance, arm, and train the mujahedeen.
CIA covert support for the mujahedeen began in 1979 and was designed to destabilize a government which was seeking to reform the system of feudalistic land ownership, to educate the populace, to bring about more equality for women, and other measures which were deemed threatening to regional warlords and radicals with their own uneducated interpretations of Islam and of Sharia, or Islamic law. The sin of the regime was that it was supported by the Soviet Union.
The purpose of this covert aid, according to Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, was to provoke intervention from the Soviet Union in order to give to the USSR “it’s Vietnam War” and thus drain its resources and strengthen US dominance in the so-called “Cold War”.
The strategy was a success. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and US support for the mujahedeen expanded under the Reagan administration and became overt. The mujahedeen, said Reagan, were “freedom fighters”, whom he honored by proclaiming “Afghanistan Day” in the US.
The US provided the mujahedeen with financing (projected in the billions), arms (including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles), and training through their intermediary, the ISI. Islamic schools, or madrassas, in Pakistan were also financed and used to recruit militants to join the mujahedeen.
The result was a decade-long war that devastated Afghanistan. Although the precise numbers will never be known, it is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of a million Afghans. Three million became refugees, many of whom fled to Pakistan (which still has a sizeable refugee population). The US government had, at best—giving it the full benefit of the doubt—looked the other way while a drugs trade flourished that helped to finance the US effort to destabilize Afghanistan, resulting in the country becoming the supplier for most of the world’s heroin. And following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the US walked away from Afghanistan, leaving it torn between feuding warlords and militants that terrorized and oppressed the population.
In another quid pro quo, the US also turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapons program, which eventually became successful under the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, who had long been under the eye of intelligence agencies suspicious of his proliferation activities.
Meanwhile, the madrassas of Pakistan continued to produce radical militants recruited to join others from numerous countries at training camps in Afghanistan that continued to educate militants in the art of guerilla warfare and terrorism.
Osama bin Laden, who hailed from a wealthy Saudi family, had gone to Afghanistan to provide support and training to the mujahedeen, eventually establishing “al-Qaeda” as a means of doing so.
And from the madrassas arose the Taliban, which is the plural of “talib”, which means “student” in Pashto. When the Taliban first rose to power, they were greeted by many Afghans as liberators for freeing the people from the yoke of the oppressive warlords, only to become the oppressors of Afghanistan themselves.
Although the US government had assisted the mujahedeen in the war against the Soviet Union, the US itself became increasingly the object of enmity among radical Islamic militants for its role in the Middle East. Among the grievances against the US were its support for the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people and its support for dictatorships, such as the Shah’s regime in Iran and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Osama bin Laden lobbied the Saudi government to gather his mujahedeen to fight the Iraqi army and force their withdrawal from Kuwait. Instead, Saudi Arabia agreed to allow US forces onto Saudi soil. The US proceeded to engage in a war that exceeded its mandate under a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force only to defend Kuwait and force the withdrawal of the Iraqi military, resulting in war crimes such as the slaughter of retreating Iraqi military forces, massive civilian casualties, and the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure.
Following the war, the US was the principal party responsible for the implementation and continuation of sanctions which further punished the Iraqi people for the crimes of their tyrannical leader. The UN sanctions regime only served to strengthen Saddam by making the population more dependent upon him and greatly reduced the possibility that they might rise up and overthrow him. By the UN’s own account, the sanctions also resulted in the deaths of a million Iraqis, including half a million children.
This encouraged further the existing enmity for American policies throughout the Middle East and was a cause célèbre for bin Laden and other extremists to garner sympathy for their cause.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government accused Osama bin Laden of masterminding the plot and demanded that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan turn him over to the US. The Taliban agreed to take the matter into consideration if the US were to provide evidence of bin Laden’s involvement, but the US rejected any sort of diplomacy and instead began its war against Afghanistan.
While the US never publicly presented any evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the plot, it was reported that Indian intelligence had helped to track the money trail and discovered that it was at the behest of the head of the ISI, General Mahmud Ahmed, that $100,000 was wired to lead hijacker Mohammed Atta in Florida (later identified as the mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also had known ties to the ISI, and Musharraf himself claimed he was formerly an agent of MI6, Britain’s intelligence agency).
India had handed over its evidence to the FBI, yet the 9/11 Commission Report that was mandated with investigating terrorist attacks against the US, although acknowledging Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, concluded that the attacks received no support from any foreign government and stated that the question of who financed the attacks was “of no practical significance,” and thus avoiding the whole embarrassing affair.
Pakistan, which had been the Taliban’s greatest benefactor and one of only three nations to recognize the legitimacy of their regime, was given an ultimatum by the US after 9/11. According to Musharraf, the US threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if it refused to cooperate with the US to overthrow the Taliban (an objective that some reports had indicated was on the minds of some in Washington even prior to 9/11 because the Taliban was proving to be an obstacle to several proposed pipeline projects).
But military action was deemed politically unfeasible until the terrorist attacks (as was also the case for the later invasion of Iraq). Indeed, the 9/11 attacks were seen as an “opportunity” by many so-called “neoconservatives” in positions of power who had long argued that the US military was in need of “transformation” into a force capable of enforcing US global hegemony, but that absent some “external shock”, like “a new Pearl Harbor”, the necessary transformation would be an arduous task due to strong domestic opposition after the end of the “Cold War”.
After it was reported in the international media (the only mention in the US was a short opinion piece on the Wall Street Journal’s website, which mentioned it almost in passing) that the chief of Pakistan’s intelligence agency—the equivalent of the US Director of Central Intelligence—had been directly involved the 9/11 attacks, Mahmud Ahmed was quietly removed from his position and replaced, and Musharraf publicly pledged to assist the US in its “war on terrorism”.
The means by which the US waged the war in Afghanistan was to use a loose coalition of warlords known as the Northern Alliance as a proxy force. The CIA doled out cash and supplied intelligence to the warlords as they waged offenses against the retreating Taliban, while the Pentagon gradually increased the presence of US troops to secure conquered areas. Eventually, many Taliban and al-Qaeda members, reportedly including bin Laden, were driven into the mountains at Tora Bora. Despite intensive bombardment and an aggressive offensive, the US failed to prevent the escape of militants towards and across the Pakistani border.
In addition, it was widely reported that the US had made an arrangement with Pakistan whereby Pakistan would send air transports into Afghanistan in order to evacuate Pakistani nationals. Many Taliban and al-Qaeda members, Pakistani or not, were evacuated during the operations.
The US boasted of its victory over the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, despite the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, whose importance was played down. General Tommy Franks denied that it was one of the objectives of the war to capture or kill bin Laden and stated that “the mission, the direction from the president, was to remove the Taliban” and disrupt terrorist training camps. General Richard Meyers stated that “The goal there was never after specific individuals.” And President Bush said he was “truly…not that concerned about him.”
With a new safe haven in Pakistan, the Taliban began to regroup and gather more recruits to fight the US and what was perceived to be its puppet government in Afghanistan, which was actually in control of very little of the country. Instead, the warlords the US had allied itself with took control of the countryside, many of whom were the same warlords the Afghan people were so glad to be rid of earlier that they had initially greeted the Taliban as their liberators.
Much of the countryside, under control of the warlords, once again became cultivated for the poppy crop. Poppy farming and heroin production had been greatly reduced under the Taliban, and the US had even given the Taliban millions of dollars, ostensibly to assist in their campaign to eradicate the crop and drugs trade. As a result of the US war, Afghanistan rose once again to become the world’s leading supplier of opium, surpassing all past records until virtually all of the world’s heroin was being supplied by poppies grown in Afghanistan.
Before long, international agencies and expert analysts were describing the drugs trade as a major source of financing for radical militants and terrorists, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, its splinter cells, and associated terrorist organizations.
And while the US claimed that Pakistan was a great “ally” in the “war on terrorism”, indications were that members of the Pakistan army and ISI, perhaps with official sanction, were still assisting the US’s foes. Pakistan replaced Afghanistan as the “safe haven” for the Taliban and al-Qaeda and came under constant pressure to cooperate more with the “war on terrorism”. While Pakistan’s right hand was arresting a number of suspected terrorists and militants and handing many of them over to the US in order to placate Washington, its left was continuing to provide sanctuary and support for an ever-expanding deluge of radicalism into its border provinces.
India accused Pakistan of supporting terrorist attacks on Indian soil, such as an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2002 and a terrorist bombing in Mumbai in July 2006. Clashes erupted along the Pakistan-India border in the Kashmir region shortly after the war began, threatening further instability and the possibility of an escalation to another war on Pakistan’s other border—a potential war between two countries armed with nuclear weapons.
To help appease India, which complained about US support for their neighboring foe, the US agreed to assist India, which is not a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), in developing its nuclear program, thus further encouraging nuclear proliferation outside of the safeguards of the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In what was to become a major international scandal, it became known publicly that A.Q. Khan had organized a huge international nuclear black market, supplying materials and plans to countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Libya. Pakistan’s nuclear program was under the control of the military, and as many analysts observed, Musharraf’s denials that Khan’s ring had received official sanction strained credulity.
What became apparent was that Washington had struck yet another deal with Pakistan in which it would agree to Khan being made a scapegoat in exchange for Pakistan’s continuing ostensible support in the “war on terrorism”. Musharraf denied that the proliferation network had any official sanction and Khan echoed the official line and claimed all responsibility. For his part, Khan was pardoned by Musharraf. Pakistan avoided heavy international criticism and sanctions for nuclear proliferation. And Washington was saved yet another major embarrassment.
Musharraf faced heavy criticism from overseas for not doing enough to combat terrorism and stem the growth of radical militancy, as well as heavy criticism at home for being complicit in the US’s war against Afghanistan, as well as for other perceived capitulations to the US such as backing away, at least rhetorically, from Pakistan’s Kashmir policy of supporting militants against India and its forces in the region. Musharraf was seen as engaging and arresting militants as necessary to appease Washington and to ease pressure from the US to do more to assist in the “war on terrorism” while at the same time allowing the very same militants to find safe haven.
A number of airstrikes by the US on Pakistani soil resulting in civilian deaths further enraged the local population against Musharraf and his alliance with Washington and helped to foster sympathy for the growing militant movement. Musharraf denied giving the US permission for the strikes to save face at home, but Washington insisted that the attacks were approved by Pakistan before execution.
In September 2006, Pakistan agreed to a truce with militants in North Waziristan, where the Taliban had declared the establishment of an “Islamic State” in February. Under the agreement, the militants were to end their cross-border activities and in return the government would not undertake any operations against them. The government also agreed to release prisoners and return confiscated weapons, vehicles, and other equipment to the militants.
Analysts predicted, since the accord had no enforcement measures and basically relied upon the militants’ word that they would cease in their activities against US and Afghan forces across the border while promising that their activities would not be monitored by the Pakistani government, that the result would be a consolidation of the extremists’ power in the region and an escalation of the threat of militancy and terrorism, which is precisely what occurred.
Musharraf calculated that he could appease the public, the militants, and his benefactors in Washington, but was only partially successful. The public became increasingly outraged about his perceived image as a puppet of Washington and increasingly weary of his dictatorial rule, longing for reforms leading to a more democratic government. The extremists perceived him as dishonoring their truce by taking actions designed to placate Washington (while of course ignoring their own obligations under the agreement). And while the White House publicly proclaimed its faith in Musharraf as a valuable ally, it was reported that through more private channels there was increasing pressure on him to deliver in order to justify the massive amounts of financial and military aid being sent to Pakistan each month.
In March 2007, Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Chaudhry was expected to oppose Musharraf’s plan to extend his presidency while remaining head of the army on the grounds that this would be unconstitutional. Chaudhry was also reportedly investigating the “disappearance” of many suspected militants, many of whom wound up under US custody at Baghram, Afghanistan or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Musharraf’s decision was met with an enormous domestic outcry and the Supreme Court ruled in July that his suspension of Chaudhry was illegal and had him reinstated. The Supreme Court was then expected to challenge any attempt by Musharraf to be re-elected as President while keeping the title of army chief of staff.
Musharraf won reelection in an October Parliamentary vote, which was boycotted by his substantial opposition, many of whom walked out in protest since Musharraf was still in uniform. Most viewed the election as illegitimate and a minority of the Parliament representing Musharraf’s supporters actually participated in the election.
The Supreme Court was likewise expected to rule that the election was invalid since Musharraf had not resigned from his army role prior to the vote. Analysts predicted that Musharraf might declare a state of emergency in response to this threat to his authority, which is precisely what he did, citing the threat of extremism and terrorism as pretext.
In July 2007, the Pakistan military had raided the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where the ISI is based, and killed its radical cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, after negotiations between the government and the cleric had broken down. The government had been a benefactor of the cleric and his mosque, but confronted Ghazi after militants had increasingly been terrorizing the local population with their strict interpretation of Sharia and carrying out abductions, including the kidnapping of several Chinese nationals the previous month.
According to the government, hundreds of people were in the mosque, including women and children whom the militants were using as “human shields”. A spokesman said that more than a hundred men, women, and children came out of the mosque during the fighting. More than 100 people were also reported killed in the raid.
Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri immediately condemned the raid in a videotape. Then in September, another videotape was released consisting of a montage of old video, including footage of bin Laden, who is heard in the beginning reciting verses from the Quran before another voice narrates what is purportedly a message from bin Laden likewise condemning Musharraf as a “traitor” and calling for his overthrow.
Recognizing that Musharraf’s grip on power was slipping and not wanting to risk the possibility that he might actually lose in the October election, Washington orchestrated an agreement between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who planned to return from self-imposed exile. Under the agreement, Musharraf would grant amnesty to Bhutto, who had been convicted on charges of corruption in 1999, and allow her to return to the country, possibly to share power with Musharraf in a return to her former post. In return, Bhutto, still a popular leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), would support Musharraf’s reelection as President.
In October, the Supreme Court ruled that Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister Musharraf had ousted in a bloodless coup in 1999, and who had also been charged with corruption, would likewise be allowed to return to the country. Both former leaders, despite charges of mismanagement and corruption, still maintained substantial support among the public, and were viewed as a potential threat to Musharraf’s rule.
On November 3, Musharraf issued a “Proclamation of emergency”, which used the increasing threat of militancy and terrorism as a pretext for suspending the constitution, while clearly being directed primarily against the judiciary that was, according to the proclamation, “working at cross purposes with the executive and legislature in the fight against terrorism,” apparently by threatening Musharraf’s grip on power and challenging his authority as dictator.
If there was any ambiguity about the purpose for the declaration of martial law, it was cleared up in the immediate aftermath, during which time the government arrested thousands of political opponents and peaceful demonstrators, including lawyers and human rights activists. Independent media outlets were shut down and only state-run channels were allowed to broadcast. Journalists who refused to agree to demands not to criticize the government were arrested under counterterrorism laws and hence, according to human rights groups, put in danger of adding their number to the disappeared, of being subjected to torture, of being tried before military courts, or of being rendered to the US.
While Pakistan’s constitution was suspended under the declaration, Musharraf proclaimed a Provisional Constitutional Order that effectively prohibited the Supreme Court from ruling against him and ordering members of the judiciary to swear an oath of loyalty to him, rather than to the constitution. Twelve of the seventeen Justices of the Supreme Court refused to do so and were placed under house arrest and replaced by judges hand-picked by Musharraf who would agree to his order. The Supreme Court then proceeded to affirm his reelection in an attempt to grant the vote an air of legality.
Bhutto, whose credibility had suffered with the public as a result of her deal with Musharraf, was forced to renege and issue a strong statement against the state of emergency and to call for him to quit his office.
Sharif, who had attempted to return in September only to be prevented by Musharraf, who had the returning exile flown off to Saudi Arabia, welcomed Bhutto’s change of heart and said his Pakistan Muslim League (PLM) was ready to cooperate with Bhutto’s PPP to bring an end to Musharraf’s dictatorship.
Musharraf responded by placing Bhutto under house arrest and cracking down further on his opposition. Criticized for its muted response to situation in Pakistan, which was contrasted with the Bush administration’s strong condemnation for the government of Burma’s recent oppression of its opposition, the White House made a series of statements and dispatched John Negroponte to urge Musharraf to end the state of emergency, to resign from his army post, and to allow upcoming elections to be held without interference. At the same time, it was made clear in administration statements that there would be no consequences, such as a scaling back in the extensive US aid to Pakistan’s regime, were Musharraf to decide to ignore Washington’s rhetorical urgings.
Musharraf did just that, rebuffing Washington’s requests. The Bush administration returned to defending him and his rule. President Bush asserted that Musharraf had “advanced democracy in Pakistan” and that he was “a man of his word”. When asked if there was a line Musharraf would have to cross before the US withdrew its diplomatic support and financial and military aid for the dictator, Bush responded that “he hasn’t crossed the line…. I think he truly is somebody who believes in democracy.”
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, observed that “Almost everyone in Pakistan who believes in George Bush’s vision of democracy is in prison today. Calling the man who put them in prison a great democrat will only discredit America among moderate Pakistanis…” Numerous other commentators made similar observations on the ludicrously untenable position of the White House. As former Pakistan Supreme Court justice Wajihuudin Ahmed noted, “None of these things would happen without a wink from the United States administration.” The White House acknowledged that it had been notified in advance that Musharraf intended to declare martial law, but insisted that “There was never a green light.”
Sharif made a successful return to Pakistan at the end of November and was greeted by jubilant supporters who defied martial law by gathering in public to cheer for him. Several days later, and a day before he was to be sworn in as President after his controversial reelection, Musharraf finally bowed to pressure from home and abroad and resigned from the army. His resignation was followed by a declaration that elections would be held on time on January 8 and that “no one will be allowed to obstruct the democratic process.”
Sharif was subsequently barred from participating in the upcoming elections by Pakistan’s election authorities on the basis that he had a criminal record for “hijacking” a plane in 1999. This was a reference to Sharif’s attempt to prevent Musharraf’s planned coup by not allowing his plane to land on a return flight to the country. Musharraf contacted his supporters in the army from the plane, however, and by the time he reached the ground, Sharif had been deposed and Musharraf announced himself Pakistan’s new leader.
The struggle for democratic reform has been in many cases waged Pakistan’s lawyers. There been a growing push from lawyers across the country to reinstate the judiciary, and one means by which they are working to accomplish this is by pressuring candidates and parties likely to participate in the upcoming elections to come out strong in condemnation of the declaration of emergency and vow to restore the constitution and the Supreme Court. Bhutto has lost further credibility among Pakistanis for failing to come out with a strong statement in favor of doing so, possibly because she fears a return of the legitimate judiciary might be willing to hear challenges to her amnesty agreement with Musharraf.
The people of Pakistan have an unappealing array of choices in the coming election. There’s no simple solution to the problems the country is faced with today, which include among other things the issues of spreading radical militancy and how to best ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal remains secure. But allowing democratic processes to take place, rather than rejecting and suppressing them, would be a good first step towards a solution by helping empower the Pakistani people to take action out of their own self interest to turn back the tide of extremism and ensure that their nation’s nuclear arsenal remain in safe storage.
There’s no silver-bullet solution and the task of building peace, stability, and democracy in Pakistan is certain to be a long and arduous one. The most elementary step towards a solution would be to stop engaging in policies that have largely caused and which continue to escalate the problem. The different options and opportunities that would manifest themselves as a result of making that choice are impossible to predict, and there is no way to preclude the possibility that negative consequences could also arise as the result of any change in policy. But the result of persisting in policies which have demonstrably served only to increase war and terrorism, instability, and the threat of proliferation, and which have served only to setback the stated goal of achieving democracy are not so difficult to foresee. The results will continue to be as they have been—the opposite of the sane and rational objectives nearly universally agreed upon.