Pajamas Media has an excellent roundup on the current state of martial law in Pakistan after President Pervez Musharraf arrested members of the Supreme Court and shut down parts of the Pakistani press. The “state of emergency,” now in its third day represents a potential crisis in the region that will have major implications for the war against al-Qaeda and America’s democratization policy.
The problem is this: while we don’t like military dictatorships, the alternative in Pakistan is not very good. Pervez Musharraf is hardly a poster boy for democracy, but he’s also responsible for combatting extremism in Pakistan and ensuring that tensions with India didn’t result in a nuclear exchange. The two things we definitely don’t want in Pakistan is a radical Islamist government who might use nukes or a radical secular nationalist government that might use nukes. Our primary interest is ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands. Pervez Musharraf, even though he’s acting like any other dictator, is at least someone who’s unlikely to spark World War III. The same cannot necessarily be said of others.
Depending on who you ask, this crisis began either when Pakistan’s Supreme Court was about to rule against Musharraf’s position as head of the army and President or when radical Islamists started causing trouble in Pakistan’s frontier regions. The former is most likely, but there’s no denying that terrorist activity in Pakistan is a major problem. Musharraf almost certainly is using terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on the Pakistani legal establishment. However, the question remains who would rule Pakistan is Musharraf were to be desposed?
The State Department is calling on Musharraf to restore civilian rule and step down as the head of the Pakistani Army. That’s a natural consequence of our pro-democracy position. The problem with that call is that the Pakistani Army is one of the few things holding the country together. It would be great if we could have a democratic Pakistan, but if there was a free and fair election it’s not at all certain that the beneficiaries wouldn’t be hardcore Islamists sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Again, our strategic outlook has to consider that Pakistan is a nuclear state, and anything that potentially puts nukes into terrorist hands is a very bad thing for the West.
What’s interesting to observe is India’s lack of strong reaction to the situation in Pakistan. India and Pakistan have had a long-standing dispute over Kashmir and a few years ago were close to nuclear war. However, under Musharraf tensions have slowly been reduced:
The two neighbors have fought three wars since Pakistan was carved out of India at the end of the era of British rule. Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors have thawed recently and General Banerjee at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies says India is in no rush to see President Musharraf depart the stage in Pakistan.
“In recent years Musharraf was seen in India as somebody who was constructive on the critical issues between India and Pakistan and especially on Kashmir and therefore somebody that India could do business with,” added Banerjee.
The Indians realize that the alternatives to Musharraf are not good. While the US is publicly condemning Musharraf’s military coup, it’s quite likely that privately many members of the US government agree with India’s outlook. Our policy towards Pakistan has largely been one of slowly pushing Musharraf towards democracy, but not so hard as to threaten his ability to keep Pakistan from sliding into anarchy or war. Musharraf’s actions make that delicate balance much harder now.
Ultimately, we have to look out for our interests. Benazir Bhutto might be a compelling alternative to Musharraf, but without the support of the Army she’s likely to end up deposed yet again. Bhutto is saying the right things, but the charges of corruption weren’t far off the mark and the last thing Pakistan needs is a leader who’s at risk from either a military coup or an Islamist takeover. Bhutto has yet to demonstrate that she’s strong enough to lead Pakistan. Musharraf is not acting like someone with a commitment to democracy, but we have to realize that democratic development in Pakistan is a dangerous game. Push too much and we risk losing Musharraf as a key ally. If we lose Musharraf, there’s no telling what could happen. In a situation like this, it’s better to go with the devil you know than risk having a nuclear-armed terrorist state perched in a critical area of the world.