Unholy Alliance

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JANUARY 19, 2004

Unholy Alliance

Americans only notice Pakistan when it's about to blow up. And, on
December 25, it almost did: Two vans loaded with explosives tried to
slam into President Pervez Musharraf's car. It was the second
attempt on his life in eleven days. The U.S. media portrayed the
attempted assassinations as escalations in the death struggle
between the pro-Western president and his Islamist enemies.But, had the press glanced Pakistan's way just a week later, it
might have realized that this familiar narrative is too simple--and
too comforting. On December 29, Pakistani legislators passed a bill
extending Musharraf's near- absolute powers until 2007. Outside
parliament, secular legislators protested the pre-scripted vote,
chanting, "Go, Musharraf, go." But, inside, Pakistan's Islamist
parties--abiding by a deal they had cut several days before--
guaranteed that Musharraf's dictatorship would continue for years to
come.

If that sounds like a strange way for mortal enemies to behave, it's
because, while Pakistan's Islamist militants may be trying to kill
Musharraf, they are also his key allies in retaining power. Since
September 11, 2001, Americans have begun to notice the similarly
macabre double game in Riyadh, where the Saudi royals--seeking
religious legitimacy--feed the very Islamist fanatics who want to
dangle them from the nearest lamppost. But there is far less
recognition, particularly on the right, that our good friend
Musharraf is doing the same thing. In fact, in his case, it may be
worse. First, because, unlike Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has a secular
political tradition; Islamists aren't the only alternative to
Musharraf's rule. Second, because Pakistan has nuclear weapons. All
of which raises an interesting question: If the Bush administration
is so committed to democracy in the Muslim world, why don't they
fight for it in Pakistan, where we may need it most?

The military-mullah alliance has deep roots in Pakistani politics.
After taking power in a 1977 coup, General Zia ul-Haq forged ties
with radical clerics to legitimize his rule. He introduced public
hangings and amputations, amended the blasphemy law to impose the
death penalty for those who insulted the Prophet Mohammed, and
encouraged Islamists to open madrassas around the country--even
granting their graduation certificates the status of an M.A. in
Islamic sciences. The United States, which needed Zia's help against
the Soviets in Afghanistan, shoveled him money nonetheless, some of
which he in turn passed to Afghan warlords like Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar--who made his name splashing acid in the faces of
unveiled Afghan women and is now fighting to return the Taliban to
power.

When Musharraf pulled off his own coup in 1999, he embarked on a
similar strategy. The main threats to his rule were the two secular
leaders who had dominated Pakistan's corrupt but relatively free
politics in the '90s: Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf
deposed, and Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister before him.
Musharraf jailed then exiled Sharif, blocked Bhutto's return, and
disbanded parliament.

In 2002, Musharraf began a series of pseudodemocratic moves designed
to legitimize his rule. In April 2002, he staged a plebiscite on
extending his term for five years, which he won with 98 percent of
the vote. Three months earlier, under pressure from the United
States, the general had arrested more than 2,000 militants. But,
near the time of the referendum, most were quietly let go.
According to government sources, the releases were aimed at
soothing Islamist opposition to the referendum. Sharif, by
contrast, remained in exile.

That October, when Musharraf held elections for a reconstituted
parliament, his alliance with the Islamists grew more explicit. The
general allowed only college graduates to stand for office, which
eliminated roughly 40 percent of possible candidates. But, in the
tradition of Zia, he counted madrassa certificates as college
degrees, allowing the Islamist parties to run their own candidates
in place of the disqualified secularists. The results were
stunning: The Islamists, who had never before won even 5 percent of
the vote, won 11 percent and gained control of the parliament in
the Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. As
Carnegie Endowment visiting scholar Husain Haqqani wrote at the
time, "Limitations imposed on the secular parties by Gen. Musharraf
have created a political vacuum that is currently being filled by
the Islamists." The European Union denounced the balloting as
"seriously flawed." The Bush administration, however, called it "an
important milestone in Pakistan's ongoing transition to
democracy."

Six months after taking power, the religious parties in the
Northwest Frontier Province voted to force women to wear veils, to
ban male doctors from seeing female patients in government
hospitals, and to establish a Taliban- style religious police.
Musharraf blocked the measures just before a July 2003 trip to Camp
David, where President Bush unveiled a $3 billion U.S. aid package.
But the religious parties also began using their new power to assist
Taliban rebels across the border. And, while Musharraf has pledged
to crack down on such support, his latest political deal with the
Islamists--ratified last week-- once again calls his crackdowns
into question. As Pakistani military expert Hassan Askar Rizvi puts
it, "Musharraf cannot pursue a counterterrorism policy at home when
many of the religious parties are in favor of Al Qaeda and his
foreign policy goals are unachievable because the mullahs don't want
them."

Musharraf's willingness to keep bolstering Islamists, even as they
try to kill him, may seem baffling. But the logic is simple: If
Musharraf turns to the secular parties instead, they will demand
that he restore democracy. And, for the general, staying in power
is more important than defeating terrorism.

Is the Bush administration really surprised? After all, underlying
the president's grand speeches about Middle Eastern democracy is a
recognition that dictators will do whatever it takes to retain
power--including mortgaging their countries to fanatics. The answer
to this ticking bomb, the president says, is for the United States
to start conditioning our support on clear moves toward democracy.
It's a great new policy. Too bad it doesn't apply to Pakistan.

By Peter Beinart

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