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 streets.
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.