Interviews October 2007

After Musharraf

What the future holds for Pakistan—and for America
Rally in Islamabad
SUPPORTERS OF deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry celebrate his reinstatement to the supreme court in July in Islamabad.

The United States, of course, took a renewed interest in Pakistan after 9/11. Faced with the now-infamous threat, supposedly delivered by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, that the country would be bombed “back to the Stone Age” if it failed to support the war on terrorism, Musharraf reversed course, dragging a sometimes-reluctant army along with him. In perhaps the most striking example of the country’s about-face, Musharraf in December 2001 ordered a full army corps into the tribal areas to intercept al-Qaeda and sometimes Taliban militants fleeing across the Afghan border after the U.S.-led invasion; by the end of 2004, several hundred foreign militants had been captured.

Musharraf also cleaned house within the generals’ rank. General Mahmoud, the ISI chief and a Taliban ally who had opposed the American invasion of Afghanistan, was sacked just weeks after 9/11. Musharraf downgraded the Islamic-affairs office from a directorate to a “section” run by a junior officer, and sought to dilute Islamist influence in the ranks. He began vetoing promotions of brigadiers and generals, and has put his own people in charge of the selection process at Pakistan Military Academy. He surrounded himself with a cadre of politically moderate generals, almost all of whom had been trained in the United States, including the army’s vice chief, Lieutenant General Ahsan Saleem Hayat, the next in line for the army’s top spot.

Nonetheless, the war along the border has opened a divide between the top military brass and junior officers. In 2006 alone, at least 300 Pakistani soldiers died in this campaign, most in roadside-bomb attacks or ambushes in the mountainous terrain; thousands of militants and civilians were also killed and injured. Tanvir Ahmed Khan, the former foreign secretary, recently addressed a gathering of mid-level officers at one of the army’s premier training establishments about the war in Afghanistan, and found some uncertainty about Pakistani policy. I spoke with Khan for several hours at his comfortable house in Islamabad. An erudite figure in his early 70s who held senior positions during the Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto years, Khan has lectured and written widely on Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors. He maintains ties with many of the country’s most powerful military figures of the past three decades.

Khan recounted for me a telling conversation he’d had after his lecture at the training center. He was approached by an army major in his 30s who was confused about a Pakistani bombing raid in South Waziristan that had killed dozens of local Pashtun tribesmen who were fighting for the Taliban. The officer perceived the tribesmen not as terrorists but as Pashtun nationalists, whose targets were the Western occupiers and who had no quarrel with the Pakistani government. “He said, ‘I am ashamed of what has been done there,’” Khan told me. The military has no love for al-Qaeda, Khan continued, at least as long as al-Qaeda can be defined as “‘the Arabs,’ as ‘the other.’” But “when Musharraf claims that he has attacked these insurgents, and the media insist that dead bodies are those of tribesmen,” Khan said, “it becomes a different story.”

Near the end of my stay in Pakistan, a journalist friend in Islamabad introduced me to an old friend of his: a 35-year-old major in the Pakistani army, who had agreed to talk to me as long as I didn’t use his name or identify his unit. We met in a small, smoky lounge at my friend’s newspaper office. The major, who was wearing civilian clothes—jeans and a wool sweater thrown over a polo shirt—was a stocky, affable man who spoke colloquial English; he seemed relaxed and uninhibited, once I assured him that I’d protect his identity. “Major Khaled,” as I’ll call him, grew up in northern Punjab—the “martial belt” that has traditionally provided the vast majority of soldiers and officers in the army—and he received his training at the Pakistan Military Academy. His career mirrored that of many other ambitious young Pakistani officers, and until recently, he had followed his orders without questioning them: He had participated enthusiastically, for instance, in the 1999 invasion of Kargil. All of that changed after Pakistani troops were deployed in the tribal agencies along the border to put down local insurgents and foreign fighters.

“I’ve met people of all ranks, in the line of fire, and nobody is happy with this way of solving the problem in Waziristan,” he told me. “The terrain is hard. It’s difficult to hold the ground. The insurgents know every inch of the area.” Major Khaled told me he resented the implication, which he felt the U.S. government had fostered, that Pakistan was serving as the main refuge for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. “The terrain around Kabul is similar, so why do they say that the only hideouts are in Waziristan?” he said. “Why is Pakistan singled out? Pakistan has suffered a lot. I’ve lost colleagues in ambushes, to time bombs, to improvised explosive devices. The Pakistan army is bleeding for you people.” I asked Khaled if his doubts about the mission had ever caused him to disobey the commands of higher-ups. He shook his head. “I’m not a policy maker. We just have to follow the orders, but people down below don’t go into battle from their hearts. There could have been other options. This is not our battle. This is your battle, and we’re paying the price.”

Though Major Khaled told me that he admired American democracy and liked the American soldiers he had met, he had little confidence in the United States as an ally or benefactor. “We know that the United States tomorrow won’t hesitate to forget us. They’ve done it before,” he said. The only reason that Musharraf had signed on to the war on terrorism, he said, was that his government “has a gun to its head, and it has no other options.” He returned to the theme that Pakistan was fighting a proxy war for an untrustworthy ally. “If we had to face bullets [to save Pakistan], we’d go, but why do that for someone who’s not loyal to you [when Pakistan is not threatened]? This is not our war; Taliban, al-Qaeda are not criminals in our country.”

The Western military liaison officer, who works closely with his Pakistani counterparts, says that the entire Pakistani military, from Musharraf on down, has been deeply ambivalent about the border campaign. He told me he thinks that Musharraf himself is beginning to realize that the Taliban and al-Qaeda could pose a threat to Pakistan’s security if left untended, but that this view has not yet permeated the military leadership. In addition, he said, “They know that their initial army forays were largely unsuccessful, and that their army had never been in the [tribal areas] and was viewed as foreign—almost as much as our army would be. So they’ve backed away.”

The Pakistanis, he says, often appear to turn a blind eye to insurgent infiltrations, fail to man border posts, and ignore American requests for cooperation. For months they have refused to establish a joint operations center in the border zone. “They say, ‘We’re thinking about it,’ but it never happens,” he says. He gave me an example of how Pakistani officers can sometimes work directly against U.S. interests on the border: On the afternoon of January 10, U.S. intelligence detected four “jingle trucks”—brightly painted vehicles adorned with jingling bits of metal, which typically serve as buses in both Pakistan and Afghanistan—transporting about 200 heavily armed insurgents to the border of the Kurram tribal agency, west of Peshawar.

Three Pakistani border posts were within a kilometer of where the trucks were off-loading fighters, but the fighters crossed into Afghanistan in broad daylight, unmolested. The Pakistanis ignored American requests to detain and interrogate the truck drivers. After the trucks had driven away, the Pakistani soldiers told the Americans that the drivers said they were innocent contractors. “We asked, ‘Why didn’t you arrest them? You could have interrogated them and asked them where they picked up the fighters, how much money they were paid, if they recognized foreign fighters.’ But they didn’t. They let them go.”

The Americans’ perceptions of the Pakistanis are shared by security officers in Kashmir. S. M. Sahai, the inspector general of the Jammu & Kashmir Police, the institution responsible for interdicting insurgents who cross the border from Pakistan, told me that Pakistani soldiers, especially enlisted men and “younger officers,” are generally sympathetic to the Islamist insurgency. “If they have a face-to-face encounter with them along the border, they will arrest them,” Sahai told me in Srinagar. “But the general attitude is to look the other way.”

What might the United States lose if Musharraf were to fall from power, and what would it stand to gain? Curiously, on the issue that U.S. policy makers seem to care most about today—military action against Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan—Musharraf’s presence or absence might make little difference. As the United States has recently found, Pakistan’s military is willing to push only so hard on this front; institutional resistance, popular opposition, and Pakistan’s own strategic calculus are likely to limit action, no matter who is in charge. At the same time, some action and cooperation— intelligence sharing, covert assistance, low-grade military operations, and the rare high-profile strike—can probably be coaxed out of any regime that is likely to follow Musharraf’s. The Pakistani army deeply values the American high-tech weaponry it receives; the equipment helps it keep pace with India’s army. Benazir Bhutto, for her part, recently stated publicly that she wholeheartedly supported the war on terrorism. And the appetite of moderate Pakistanis for incursions against the militants has increased in the wake of the Red Mosque confrontation and the series of suicide attacks that followed.

The threat of an outright Islamist revolution—by gun or ballot—is low today, and so too is the threat that nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The army is not dominated by jihadists, and its controls on its missiles are strong. Yet the course of Pakistani politics remains vital to the United States. Military rule in Pakistan may have been helpful to U.S. interests for a time, but it isn’t any longer. The benefits have diminished, while the corrosive effects on society have grown—and continue to grow.

The military’s younger generation has exhibited some of the same unsavory tendencies as Musharraf: an inclination toward authoritarianism, contempt for civilians, indulgence of military corruption, and an unequivocal belief in the military as the country’s savior. It also appears more sympathetic to Islamist causes and more hostile to India than is Musharraf. Pakistani officers in their 30s do not believe that the U.S. wants a long-lasting relationship with Pakistan; they have little camaraderie with U.S. soldiers, and they feel little empathy for U.S. political or diplomatic positions.

And while the military aims to do the opposite, it is slowly destabilizing Pakistan. Eight years of usurpation of power by Musharraf have weakened secular parties, corrupted the judiciary, and implanted army men in every facet of civilian life. Pakistan’s population is now doubling every 38 years, creating severe social pressures. If the political process remains stunted, the Islamists may continue to gather strength until the country reaches a tipping point. “We are not going to collapse if Musharraf goes tomorrow; Pakistan will go on, insha’allah,” I was told by Mohammed Enver Baig, a senator with the Pakistan People’s Party. “But the 2007 elections could be a turning point for all of us. If the elections are not fair, don’t be surprised if next time—after five years—you come and see me, I might have a long beard myself.”

America may best serve its interests, then, by pulling off a balancing act: reinforcing ties to the existing power structure in Pakistan (the armed forces) while at the same time pushing hard for democracy. These two ends are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In August 1988, immediately after the death of the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, the vice chief of army staff, General Aslam Beg, summoned his naval and air chiefs, the head of the ISI, and the army judge advocate general to headquarters in Rawalpindi and informed them that he was turning over power to the chairman of the senate, a civilian, as Pakistan’s constitution requires. There was no resistance, Beg recalls, and the new civilian president immediately called for multiparty elections. Those elections were among the freest and fairest in Pakistani history, and they ushered in 11 years of vibrant—if corrupt—civilian rule, ending only with Musharraf’s coup. Given the prizes the army has since won under Musharraf, a quick and complete withdrawal from politics appears unlikely this time around—and therefore even a civilian democracy would find itself greatly constrained by military interests. But with careful management by Pakistan’s politicians, and strong encouragement by the international community, the army might slowly disengage.

One important change in U.S. strategy that may al­­ready be having an effect is the reinstatement of the officer training program. Last year, the United States trained 112 Pakistani officers. Stepped-up military training could go a long way toward building trust, tamping down anti- American sentiment, and encouraging professionalism, respect for human rights, and a withdrawal to the barracks. “We lost 10 years,” I was told by the Western military liaison official. “We need to make up for lost time.”

Among junior officers, there is some support for relinquishing power. Major Khaled, the young officer I met in Islamabad, told me that back when he joined the army, “we went through villages during military exercises, and people welcomed us and gave us water, assistance. It’s the opposite now. They think I’m a rich guy just because I’m a soldier. I feel the resentment; I see the bad looks. People say we’ve hung around too long.” This widening gap between civilians and military has led to intense questioning among the junior officers, he told me. “A few days back, six of us were discussing the options, and we said, ‘The army can exit and call for a fair and impartial election. Let the exiled leaders come back to Pakistan and install a civilian government. Democracy is the right way.’”

I wasn’t sure whether Khaled was just spouting a line that he wanted me to hear, but the more he spoke, the more emphatic he became: “Our neighbor India has had democracy for 60 years. But the problem here persists. The courts are pathetic; judges are not independent; the police are illiterate, low-paid, and not fair; and corruption is rampant. A 50-year-old cop with five kids is getting $100 a month. What is he supposed to do?” The military, Major Khaled said, “should have strengthened the institutions instead of weakening them.”

Restoring democracy in Pakistan is no guarantee of stability, or of a friendly attitude toward the United States. But a viable multiparty system could defuse the power of the Islamists and impose some checks on a military that controls every aspect of policy. And it would leave the United States less dependent upon the whims of a post-Musharraf general answerable only to the clique at headquarters. “I want restoration of political freedoms,” Hood­bhoy told me. “Let people organize, hold political rallies; let there be trade unions, student unions, even if these unions would be ones you and I wouldn’t like. Because when we have mobilization of society, we can have a Pakistan, down the line, where people matter. If I were an American president, I would make my support for Musharraf conditional on that.”

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Joshua Hammer is a writer based in Berlin. He is currently working on a book about Germany’s colonial ambitions in Africa and the 20th century’s first genocide.

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