01/10/2008 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meddling in Pakistan

The Pakistani senator gazed at the headline in despair. It read "US weighs
new covert push in Pakistan". Washington was authorising "enhanced CIA
activity" in the country while Democratic candidates declared they were all
ready "to launch unilateral military strikes in [Pakistan] if they detected
an imminent threat." Hillary Clinton wanted "joint US/UK oversight" of
Pakistan's nuclear weapons. In a country where anti-Americanism is almost a
religion, said the senator, this is "an answer to a Taliban prayer."

I am convinced that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first
curse with foreign policy. For the third time in twenty years the west is
meddling with the world's sixth largest state. It did so to promote the
Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, then to attack al-Qaeda after
9/11 and now to "guard" Pakistan's bombs against a fantastical al-Qaeda
seizure. Needless to say the sole beneficiaries are the Taliban and the
forces of disorder.

That said, few other conclusions can be drawn from a country which,
more than any I know, is Churchill's riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an
enigma. Pakistan has as many paradigms as pundits. You can take your
choice. Thesis A is that President Pervez Musharraf is a well-meaning
dictator who sought rapprochement with Bhutto to "transit" to democracy,
and who still remains the best hope for guiding his country to civilian
rule. Thesis B depicts him as a popinjay dictator who kills people, locks
up judges, censors the media and runs a brutal fascist party, the MQM. He
had no intention of working with Bhutto, whom he detested, and has so much
blood on his hands as to be easily capable of consenting to her death.

Thesis C has Bhutto herself as a perfidious and corrupt hereditary
monarch in thrall to a monster husband whose base was limited to Sind
province and London's media drawing-rooms. She indulged Washington's John
Negroponte in his ham-fisted attempt to prop up Musharraf last year, but
only so as to escape corruption charges and enjoy a modest taste of power.

Thesis D says this is outrageous. Bhutto was the one Pakistani
politician with experience and stature at home and abroad. She knew she
could rule only with army permission but could have faced down the
military, negotiated with the Taliban districts and steered Pakistan to
democracy. Her going is a catastrophe.

Forget that, says thesis E. The American-backed Pakistan army,
responsible for almost a quarter of its economy, will never cede power. It
is the sole embodiment of central control in this 60-year-old federal
state, and its guarantor against another partition like Bangladesh in 1971.
It cannot afford to trust unruly politicians such as Bhutto and her ilk and
must be trusted by Pakistan's allies abroad.

Rubbish, says thesis F. Pakistan's army makes Saddam's Republican
Guard seem a bunch of pansies. Its Punjabi oligarchs and their agencies
kill at will and feud even with their Taliban allies, as in last year's
slaughter at Islamabad's Red Mosque. It has failed to curb the Taliban and
nobody, not even Musharraf, is safe from it.

As for Pakistan in general, thesis G has it teetering on the brink
of breaking apart, as the army readies itself to nullify next month's
election with rigging and corruption. A bloodbath will follow in which Sind
province defects and the north-west become an al-Qaeda enclave, lowering
over Kabul.

No it will not, says thesis H. Pakistan is made of rubber, bouncing
back from every reverse. It has a mature "civil society" of lawyers,
businessmen, politicians and even some generals, sensitive to their image
abroad and deeply ashamed of their dictatorship. The elections may be a
mess but they will somehow move Pakistan, stumbling and trembling, to
eventual civilian rule. Religious parties are supported by barely 10 per
cent of the electorate and even the army is overwhelmingly secular. An
islamist state is inconceivable.

Since there are grains of plausibility in all these theses, much
indeed turns on the fate of next month's elections. Musharraf, weakened by
his November 3rd coup, still has 60 top judges imprisoned, including the
nation's chief justice locked up with his disabled son. With the
charismatic Bhutto dead and the Negroponte intervention shattered, he is in
a tight spot. He may yet cancel the vote and invite mayhem onto the

There is certainly an openness to Pakistan's dictatorship compared
with other Islamic states and some westerners have appeased Musharraf as
"our" dictator, operating a "doctrine of necessity". But there is nothing
in this man's track record to suggest that he is not a paid-up member of
the dictatoring classes. His agents treat democrats with contempt and he
funnels huge sums into his pockets and those of his generals.

Some 80 per ent of US aid to Pakistan since Musharraf came to
power has gone on military assistance, less than a quarter of it used even
remotely against the Taliban. The virtual collapse of the state school
system has followed a fall in education spending from four per cent to 1.8
per cent of gdp, one of the lowest in Asia. In its place have mushroomed
the free madrassas, from a few hundred to over 10,000, financed by wahabist
Saudi money and formerly in league with American-financed mujahedin
training camps. Intended to fight the Russians in Afghanistan they have
since become a network of "faith training" for the poor, teaching little
but the koran. This is Musharraf's (and America's) most lethal bequest to
Pakistan's political economy.

America's clodhopping sponsorship of Musharraf drove him to renege
on the treaties with the tribal states, crazily fomenting a Pashtun
insurgency. The Afghan frontier has duly proved al-Qaeda's juiciest hunting
ground, aided by every American bombing raid and every Pakistan army
atrocity. The Pashtun Taliban (whose American backers are well-documented
in the film, Charlie Wilson's War) is a Frankenstein monster that has
turned its vengeance on Musharraf, Afghanistan and Washington alike.

Whatever the defects of democracy, and in Asia they are legion, it
remains the least worst way of curbing authoritarian power. There is no
alternative. America's handling of Musharraf since 9/11 - essentially to
capture one man, bin Laden - has rendered swathes of his country, from
Baluchistan in the South to Swat in the north, wholly insecure. Even the
grand trunk road from Islamabad to Peshawar is patrolled by Taliban. The
idea that Musharraf's troops, let alone the CIA or the US air force, might
suppress a people who have worsted every empire from the moghuls to the
British is ludicrous. Modern armies are no agents of pacification. Civilian
negotiation in a context of democratic assent is at very least worth a try.

Backing Musharraf has always seemed "a good idea at the time". The
next person to be cursed with Washington's favour appears to be Musharraf's
successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani. But by opting for the
realpolitik of dictatorship the west has not just repressed democracy but
aided insurgency and terror. It has yielded no security benefit to anyone.
If indeed this country becomes a "failed state", the failure will in large
part be one of democratic imagination in Washington and London. We simply
refuse to practice what we preach.