As expected, after bending the Pakistani constitution like a pretzel, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf won his bid for reelection on Saturday. But Musharraf has not been strengthened by the race, to the contrary. In order to secure his reelection, he was forced to agree to stand down from his command over the Pakistani military. He was further forced to accept a role for other political forces - particularly the Pakistani People's Party led by exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto - in the governing of the country.
The consequences of these political concessions on the governing capabilities and political direction of Pakistan are still unknown. But what is clear enough is that Musharraf himself has been significantly weakened politically in recent months. And today, this weakened leader is presiding over a tinderbox that threatens to engulf the nuclear-armed state and its neighborhood.
If Musharraf is unable to meet the challenges facing his regime, there is a reasonable chance that this state, with its nuclear arsenal, will soon fall into the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Such an event, of course would have horrific geopolitical consequences.
TO UNDERSTAND Pakistan's present straits, some basic facts about the country must be borne in mind. First of all, with its largely illiterate population of 165 million, in most respects Pakistan is a failed state. The only well-functioning body in the country is the military. Until the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency was the Taliban's main ally. Indeed the ISI basically created the Taliban. Al-Qaida too, has always had an extremely strong presence in the country.
Aside from that, since Sept. 11, popular support for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden has hardened in Pakistan. In a poll taken in August by Terror Free Tomorrow, bin Laden was more popular among Pakistanis than Musharraf. The al-Qaida leader received a 46 percent approval rating to Musharraf's 38 percent. Asked about their view of the purpose of the US-led war on terrorism, 66 percent of Pakistanis said they believe that the US is acting against Islam. 75 percent of Pakistanis said they oppose US military operations against al-Qaida or the Taliban inside of Pakistan.
AFTER SEPT. 11, the Bush administration made Musharraf an offer he couldn't refuse: Abandon the Taliban and al-Qaida and support the US campaign against them, or be attacked by the US. While Musharraf chose to ally himself with the US, he made scant effort to convince the Pakistani public to join him. Despite US prodding, his efforts to battle the jihadists operating in Pakistan, and indoctrinating the people for war in their mosques and madrassas were negligible.
Musharraf's decision not to wage an ideological battle against the jihadists in his own country has had both political and military consequences. Politically, the maintenance of popular support for the jihadists against the US meant that support for Pakistan's alliance with the US was felt only at the top echelons of the government and military. On the one hand, this rendered the US completely dependent on Musharraf himself. On the other hand, the overwhelming popular opposition to the US-led war in Afghanistan severely constrained Musharraf's ability to behave as a credible ally towards the US.
It was thinness of the Pakistani support for the US in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaida that informed Musharraf's decision to allow Pakistan to serve as a sanctuary for al-Qaida and Taliban leaders who fled Afghanistan. So too, the lack of popular support for the war against the jihadists played a role in Musharraf's decision to bar US forces from operating on Pakistani territory.
From their sanctuary in Pakistan, al-Qaida and the Taliban have been free to conduct their insurgency in Afghanistan. Then too, rather than thank the Pakistani government for its hospitality, the Taliban and al-Qaida have been building their Pakistani cadres and carrying out attacks inside of Pakistan aimed at overthrowing the Pakistani government largely by subverting and demoralizing the Pakistani military.
And truth be told, their task has not been particularly daunting. Since the 1970s, the Pakistani military has defined itself as a jihadist force. Its motto is "Faith, Piety and Jihad in the Way of Allah." Musharraf's post-Sept 11 break with this view has never trickled down to the rank and file, or even to many top commanders.
As a result of the Musharraf government's ineffectualness in contending with radical Islamic forces in the country, in the past two years the Taliban has asserted its authority over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. Today the Taliban controls, and has declared Islamic caliphates in North Waziristan and South Waziristan. It largely controls Bajaur, Khyber, Kurran, Mohmond and Orakzai agencies.
After Musharraf ordered the army to storm the al-Qaida-controlled Lal Masjid mosque and madrassa in Islamabad in July, al-Qaida declared war against the regime. In August, intelligence services reported that without prior warning, al-Qaida vacated all but one of its 29 training camps in North and South Waziristan. The whereabouts and plans of the terrorists remains a mystery. Last month, Osama bin Laden disseminated an audiotape calling for the overthrow of Musharraf's regime.
THE TALIBAN asserted their control over North and South Waziristan by waging a violent insurgency against the Pakistani military. Failing to defeat them, in 2006 Musharraf signed a peace agreement with them which essentially surrendered control over the areas to the Taliban. After the Lal Masjid raid, the Taliban and al-Qaida abrogated those agreements.
The military has been demoralized by its inability to fight the Taliban. At the same time, there is good reason to believe that its battlefield defeats were not due to lack of capabilities but to a lack of will. As Bill Roggio recalled in a recent report on Pakistan in his online Long War Journal, in August CNN reported that among US officials "There is… a growing understanding… that Musharraf's control over the military remains limited to certain top commanders and units, raising worries about whether he can maintain control over the long term."
The impact of the situation in Pakistan on Afghanistan is already being felt. The UN estimates that 80 percent of suicide bombers in Afghanistan come from Waziristan. The renewed strength of the Taliban in Afghanistan has led Afghan President Hamid Karzai to beseech the Taliban to conduct negotiations with him and to join his government. The strategic consequence of Karzai's move is clear. Six years after the US and NATO invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, their success is being overturned.
Several policy failures in Washington over the years have allowed the situation in Pakistan to deteriorate in this manner. First, deterred by Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, in 2001 the US decided not to do anything that could anger Musharraf. Consequently, Musharraf has been allowed to play his double game of helping both the US and the Taliban and al-Qaida. The US neglect of the strategic implications of the pro-jihadist sympathies of the Pakistani people has enabled the insurgency in Afghanistan to be maintained and expanded to Pakistan. The strengthened Afghan insurgency has caused the Karzai government to fail in its mission of transforming Afghanistan into a coherent, anti-jihadist society.
Moreover, the Pakistani nuclear deterrent has made it immune from US proliferation pressures. Unafraid of the US, the Pakistanis allowed their chief nuclear scientists to open a veritable nuclear Walmart, selling nuclear technologies and materials to anyone who could pay for it. And once A.Q. Khan was exposed, Pakistan has refused to allow US investigators to interrogate him.
While understandable, the emerging situation in nuclear-armed Pakistan shows the misguided nature of the strategy and provides telling lessons for the US in its dealings with Iran and the Arab world today.
FIRST, THE US erred in placing all its eggs in Musharraf's basket. What Pakistan's disembowelment shows is that the military dictator has never been all-powerful. The US should have spread its support beyond him. Pakistani politicians and most importantly military commanders should have been cultivated as countervailing forces. The US should have insisted on an abandonment of the jihadist principles that form the ideological creed of the Pakistani military.
Today the US is planning to train Pakistani counter-insurgency forces. It has also pledged $750 million in USAID development funds to Pakistan. Yet as Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani police chief in the Northwest Frontier Region of Pakistan wrote in a recent paper for the Jamestown Foundation, it is unclear how US development assistance can be credibly put to good use. Over the past several years, US development funds to Pakistan have been squandered by corrupt officials or passed out in a manner that often increased public hostility to the US. Still today, the US has developed no Pakistani local leaders who can be trusted to manage development projects.
The situation in Pakistan shows clearly just how vital the war of ideas is in this conflict. Although it is expedient for foreign ministries to maintain relations on government-to-government levels, in light of the cultural and religious realities in the Islamic world today, this is a failed strategy.
In 2001, Pakistan was a failed state propped up by a military dictatorship with nuclear weapons. In 2007, it remains a failed state with nuclear weapons, but now it is ruled by a failed military dictator threatened by the Taliban. While drastic measures may need to be taken in Pakistan, it should serve as a warning for policymakers.
It is impossible to rely on dictators. The war is as deep as it is wide. And to win it, the battle for the hearts and minds must be more than a slogan. It must be a war cry that sustains a deliberate, unrelenting effort to convince the Islamic world to dump jihad or face real, physical consequences.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.