Since New York’s Twin Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has been — for better and, many say, for worse — the United States’ key ally in the region where al-Qaida trains warriors to fight America.
Today, Musharraf announced that he will resign, just hours ahead of impeachment in Pakistan’s parliament over attempts to impose authoritarian rule on his turbulent nation, the Associated Press reported.
“I hope the nation and the people will forgive my mistakes,” Musharraf said in a televised address from the presidential office. Much of his emotional farewell speech was devoted to defending his record and refuting criticisms.
Musharraf, who had seized power in 1999 in a bloodless military coup, said he wanted to spare the nation from a perilous impeachment battle and he was satisfied that all he had done “was for the people and for the country.”
The chairman of Pakistan’s Senate was poised to become the interim head of state, but it was unclear who ultimately will take power over the nuclear-armed nation. The constitution calls for parliament to name a new president within 30 days.
The real problem
By several measures, the stakes in this far-away power struggle are dangerously high for the United States’ interests in a region where the forces of terrorism are elusively entrenched.
Pakistan shares a forbidding mountainous border with Afghanistan, where al-Qaida’s leaders and their sympathizers hide and stage attacks on American forces and their allies. While many American experts mistrusted him, Musharraf positioned himself as a critically important ally in U.S. efforts to rout al-Qaida and the Taliban from their hideouts.
With hostilities mounting in the region, America’s leading presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, are pledging to send more troops to Afghanistan.
But the real problem is Pakistan, Morton Abramowitz argued in Newsweek. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.
“Three decades ago, the Soviet Union tried to subdue a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan by deploying 108,000 troops (at the conflict’s height in 1985-86), including special forces and substantial air power,” Abramowitz said.
Pakistan played role in defeat of Soviets
But in 1989 the Red Army withdrew in defeat, having lost 13,000 soldiers, killed and maimed more than a million Afghans and sent 5 million refugees fleeing into nearby countries, he said.
“The single biggest reason for the Soviets’ failure was Pakistan,” he said. “And if Washington isn’t careful, Pakistan could have the same effect today.”
To understand why, start with that rugged border. While Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia operated covertly from Pakistan to smuggle weapons over the mountains and into the hands of Afghan resistance fighters.
Rather than go after the source of the weapons, the Soviets cracked down inside Afghanistan.
That strategy failed. But the United States and NATO are poised to repeat it unless smoldering problems in Pakistan are addressed in tandem with any maneuvers in Afghanistan.
“The similarities between then and now are striking,” Abramowitz said. “The U.S.-led Coalition has been in Afghanistan for seven years. There are now 70,000 Coalition troops in the country, including approximately 36,000 Americans. To date, more than 800 service members have been killed, and the numbers and pace of casualties are rising. Worse, despite the presence of these forces and billions of dollars in Western reconstruction aid, the Taliban seem to be getting stronger.”
The stakes for the United States are enormous, he said, “and good options are in short supply.”
Strategy tied to Musharraf
Musharraf also was the country’s army chief until last November, when his popularity and credibility began sinking. He had ousted dozens of judges and imposed emergency rule in bids to preserve his power.
His rivals gained control after parliamentary elections in February, largely sidelining him while pressuring him to step down. The governing coalition had threatened to bring articles of impeachment today alleging misconduct and violations of the constitution.
But the Bush administration had tied its regional strategy to Musharraf.
Now, with him gone, the United States doesn’t even know whom to talk to in Pakistan, Irfan Husain told the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
In the current political chaos, he said, there are many centers of power, and no one can speak for the whole country.
Further, Pakistan’s new civilian leadership has virtually no control over the army and the top security agency Inter-Services Intelligence, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution said at a recent foreign-policy forum (PDF).
And there have been credible reports that some officers in the ISI are assisting terrorists on Pakistan’s side of the mountainous border. Even beyond the mountain hideouts, al-Qaida and its friends have cells in every major Pakistani city, Riedel said.
“There is no reason to believe that al-Qaida’s leadership is anywhere else but Pakistan,” Riedel said. And “every major attack in Western Europe, foiled or successful in the last five years, has been postmarked in Pakistan.”
No sense of urgency
The huge problem for the West is that there is no sense of urgency in Pakistan about these developments.
“Pakistan instead is completely absorbed in its own domestic political problems,” Riedel said. “The best way to think about this is to think of Pakistan stuck in neutral. It’s left the military dictatorship of the last decade. It aspires, or at least most Pakistanis aspire, to get something like democracy, but in fact we now have a combination of both. Meaning we have really neither.”
Against that backdrop of the high stakes, the dangerous uncertainty and the shakeup that will follow Musharraf’s ouster, consider these factors:
• Pakistan not only has nuclear arms, but it also is “the number one nuclear proliferator in the world,” Riedel said. “North Korea’s program, Iran’s program, Libya’s program, and quite possibly a nascent Saudi program all find their origins in Pakistan.”
• Because of its strategic position as a gateway to Afghanistan, Pakistan has daunting leverage over support for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. “Almost every bullet we fire, every meal we eat, comes via Pakistan, and the Pakistanis know that,” Riedel said.
• Pakistan is the world’s second-most-populous Muslim-majority country, with nearly 170 million people. At a time when America’s relations with the Muslim world are strained, many Pakistanis blamed rising violence in their country on Musharraf’s alliance with the United States against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
“The Bush-Mush entente, as it is called in Pakistan, has alienated the vast majority of Pakistanis,” Riedel said. “We have a huge catch-up
job to do here. Ironically, even the Pakistani Army has no faith in us because they know that in the clutch we have consistently deserted them time and time again.”
Last week, the White House and State Department appeared to distance themselves from Musharraf, saying his impeachment was an internal matter for the coalition government to decide, the Washington Post reported.
There were intense concerns in Washington today that Musharraf’s departure would open a new era of instability in Pakistan as the fragile coalition jockeys for his share of power, the New York Times reported.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to emphasize continuity with the new leaders of Pakistan on Monday, saying the United States would keep pressing the Pakistani government to battle extremism within its borders. She also thanked Musharraf for his efforts against terrorism.
“We will continue to work with the Pakistani government and political leaders and urge them to redouble their focus on Pakistan’s future and its most urgent needs, including stemming the growth of extremism, addressing food and energy shortages, and improving economic stability,” Rice said in a statement released a few hours after Musharraf’s resignation speech. “The United States will help with these efforts to see Pakistan reach its goal of becoming a stable, prosperous, democratic, modern, Muslim nation.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.