Interviews October 2007

After Musharraf

What the future holds for Pakistan—and for America

Last November, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., brought together more than two dozen former high-level United States government officials to take part in a half-day exercise on the future of Pakistan. In the room were former assistant secretaries of state and career ambassadors, as well as former senior officials from the Pentagon, the CIA, the Treasury, and USAID; it was a veritable who’s who of Washington’s Pakistan experts. The sponsors presented an escalating series of fictional crises—growing violence along the Pakistani-Afghan border, mass protests against the government by radical Islamists, the arrest of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shortly after her return from exile—and asked participants how they would respond to rising chaos in the nuclear-armed state.

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Pakistan's President Pervez MusharrafThe exercise culminated with this scenario: In the aftermath of Pakistan’s national elections in late 2007, Taliban forces attempt to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then retreat to a hideout in western Pakistan. U.S. forces pursue them, and an American soldier is taken captive in South Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. As the kidnappers post video images of the hostage on the Internet, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf orders his army to attack the Taliban compound. The assault frees the American soldier, but leaves hundreds of militants, Pakistani troops, and civilians dead or wounded. Antigovernment riots spread across the country, peaking in a confrontation between civilians and Pakistani forces in Lahore that leaves a dozen people dead. That evening, in what looks like a coup attempt, troops surround the houses of both Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister. Hours later, the U.S. ambassador receives a call from a previously unknown Pakistani two-star general, “raising serious concerns,” according to the scenario playbook, “over whether the chain of command in Pakistan has remained intact.”

At this point, the policy makers broke into groups and tried to come up with a strategy to deal with the apparent change of leadership. But this proved difficult: The groups were unable to resolve critical questions with confidence. Though most agreed that the military would continue running the show, as it has for 33 of the last 60 years, there was widespread concern over whether the new army brass would likely be pro-American, anti-American, or something in between. There was also no consensus on whether the military—with Musharraf out of the picture—could hold the country.

With Pakistan reeling from the army’s bloody assault on radical Islamists inside Islamabad’s Red Mosque, and from a series of retaliatory attacks on Pakistani security forces, this scenario, conceived 11 months ago, seems more realistic every day. The military is demoralized by the bloody guerrilla war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda along the border. Islamist political parties, who hold power in one of the country’s four provinces and share control in another, have become a disruptive and sometimes violent force. And Musharraf’s life remains under constant threat.

Even some members of Musharraf’s inner circle have warned him that he risks losing power unless he radically changes course. (It is conceivable that by the time you read this, he will already have fallen.) The beginning of the end may have come this past March, when the president, in what has come to be seen as a major blunder, fired and placed under house arrest the supreme court’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, an independent-minded jurist who had challenged the military regime on sensitive cases. Demonstrations in support of the judge swelled through the spring, soon morphing into a broad-based pro-democracy movement. Since then, Musharraf has seemed unsteady in public, alternating shrill accusations against his opponents with apologetic pleas for support and understanding.

The longest-serving military ruler in Pakistan’s history, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, lasted 11 years, before he was killed in a plane crash, in August 1988. Musharraf might last longer (he has so far served eight years), but the rising unpredictability of when and how he might leave power has caused deep uncertainty—and anxiety—about what might follow him. One Western military liaison officer recounted a conversation he had with a general at staff headquarters in Rawalpindi the morning after last year’s U.S. midterm elections. Coincidentally, the conversation took place just a day before the think-tank exercise on Pakistan’s future, more than 7,000 miles away, and it puts the confusion of the exercise’s participants in a better light. The general expressed his admiration for the constitutional process in the United States, and marveled at how, even after a sudden removal of a president—Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s resignation—the system continued to function. “If our president were to disappear tomorrow,” the general admitted, “I have no idea in which direction our country would go.”

The nightmare scenario for U.S. policy makers—and one reason they remain heavily invested in Musharraf—is an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. A tide of anti-American sentiment, some analysts fear, could bring to power Islamists, who would give free rein to the Taliban, spread nuclear technology to rogue states and terrorist groups, and support the mujahideen in Kashmir.

There’s no doubt that Islamists have grown in numbers and prominence in Pakistan since 9/11. In 2002, six fundamentalist parties formed an alliance called Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, and rode a wave of anger at the American-led war in Afghanistan, taking 53 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly and forming the third-largest bloc in the parliament. The alliance won outright control of the provincial assembly in the North-West Frontier Province, and it now governs Balochistan in a coalition with Musharraf’s ruling party. During the weeks that I spent in Islamabad earlier this year, the MMA repeatedly flexed its muscles in noisy protests—weekly demonstrations against legislation offering further legal protections to women, rallies against the government’s razing of illegal makeshift mosques that have sprung up throughout the city. The demonstrations brought out hundreds of police officers and paralyzed traffic in the city for hours.

Moderate Muslims in Pakistan are worried about the Islamists’ rising profile: Pervez Hood­bhoy, chairman of the Quaid-e-Azam University physics department, told me that the university has been “taken over” by Islamist fervor—more hijabs in the classrooms, more prayer, and “no bookstores, but three mosques with a fourth under construction” on campus. Hood­bhoy, a highly regarded nuclear physicist and a critic of military rule, told me that an Islamist takeover of the country, either by outright domination of the electoral process or in conjunction with a radical Islamist general, “is a real possibility.”

Yet despite their clout in parliament and their seeming strength on the street, the Islamists are not widely popular: Their parties won only 11 percent of the vote in the 2002 elections (gerrymandering gave them a share of seats far greater than their numbers). Even in their stronghold, the North-West Frontier Province, they polled only 26 percent. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the MMA’s growth is its abysmal record of governance: In the North-West Frontier Province, which the alliance controls, social services are disintegrating. Unless anti-Western sentiment reaches sustained and unprecedented levels, the Islamists seem highly unlikely to muster enough votes to gain control of parliament in the next decade.

If this catastrophic scenario looks unlikely, so too does the potential for genuine democracy. Pakistan’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, is run by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto fled to London in 1996 to escape corruption charges; her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, earned the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” for allegedly taking kickbacks from foreign corporations. Though she remains by far the best-known civilian politician in Pakistan, her popularity is questionable. Many members of her party say she has stifled the emergence of fresh faces by clinging to leadership in exile, and a gulf is widening between the landowning elite that sets her party’s agenda and the working class that constitutes the bulk of its support.

Bhutto’s main civilian challenger, Nawaz Sharif, the chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League and another former prime minister, was deposed by Musharraf in 1999 (he had tried to fire Musharraf after the general orchestrated an ill-fated foray into Indian-controlled Kashmir); he now lives in Saudi Arabia, and had, before Musharraf’s crisis, reportedly promised to remain outside Pakistan for 10 years in return for the commutation of a lifetime prison sentence he had been given for attempting to stop Musharraf’s plane from landing in Islamabad during the coup. (The plane was low on fuel, and Sharif was convicted of terrorism and hijacking.) Beyond Bhutto and Sharif, there are virtually no national politicians of substance. “The sad thing is that we can’t create a new civilian leadership in the country,” one parliamentarian told me. “With 342 seats in the National Assembly, and 100 in the Senate, and the same in the provincial parliaments, we can’t find one person, besides Benazir and Sharif, who can be a prime minister or a president. It is a shame for this country.”

In late July, with his hold on power growing more tenuous, Musharraf met with Bhutto in Abu Dhabi to discuss her possible role in the next government (parliamentary elections are likely to be held this fall). A power-sharing arrangement, with Bhutto returning to become prime minister to offset Musharraf’s presidency, might reduce political tensions, at least temporarily, and give civilians more say in governance. As this magazine went to press, no such deal had been struck. Even if one were achieved, it would be unlikely to greatly affect the underlying balance of power. As of this writing, Musharraf appeared likely to retain the presidency in the short run—either by reelection or by declaration of emergency rule. And although the presidency is nominally Pakistan’s highest post, Musharraf derives greater power still from another position: chief of the army. His refusal to relinquish this second role has been a significant source of popular discontent. It is widely believed that he won’t give it up because he realizes that without it, he could quickly be reduced to a figurehead by a rival general. And indeed, if he did give up his title, the real center of power would shift not to any civilian politician or political party, but to the new army chief.

Pakistani Ranger Recruits
PAKISTANI RANGER RECRUITS on parade.

Whatever happens to Musharraf, the presidency, and the parliament, there is little doubt that the military will remain the dominant player in Pakistan for as long as it chooses. During the 11 years of democracy that followed Zia ul-Haq’s death, the civilian prime ministers, Bhutto and Sharif, had diminishing influence over Pakistan’s foreign policy and its nuclear program; Bhutto famously called the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, a “state within a state” and accused military intelligence of listening in on her phone calls. In 1990, the army, after charging her with corruption, engineered her removal by presidential decree. Sharif was tossed out nine years later, effectively at gunpoint. According to one senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, “If Musharraf should disappear from the scene tomorrow, you would have a meeting of senior military men, and a new chief of army staff, and that would be, either overtly or behind the scenes, your new government.”

Throughout the ongoing crisis, the generals have played their cards close to the vest. Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, witnessed the transition from military to civilian rule after the death of Zia ul-Haq, in 1988, and he believes that after nearly eight years in power, the military is once again ready to recede into the background. “They will go back into the barracks, and they will be happy, because they would still be influencing the government,” he told me. “The military casts a long shadow, and they would be protected.”

Most American Pakistan-watchers, however, believe that many military officers—and certainly the privileged upper echelons—want just the opposite, and are less likely than ever to surrender power: They have grown accustomed to the perks and privileges of political life. “They don’t have a game plan for a withdrawal from politics,” says Stephen Philip Cohen, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has written frequently about the Pakistani military.

In the Western diplomat’s view, the military’s continued dominance would present no immediate danger to the United States or the region, because Musharraf’s inner circle is secular, U.S.-trained, and at least nominally committed to the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” But these men are in their mid- and late 50s and moving toward the mandatory-retirement age of 60. (Musharraf himself turned 64 in August; he has ignored the mandatory- retirement rule.) The next tier of the military command is not nearly as well known. “We hope that this group would be Western-oriented, but there’s no guarantee,” says Derek Chollet, a participant in the Washington think tank exercise on Pakistan in November. “We simply don’t know who they are.”

Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, is a clean, even sterile, city of wide boulevards, faux-Moghul architecture, and wooded parks. The army’s presence is hardly overbearing; you rarely see uniformed officers or gun-toting soldiers on the streets. But as you become more attuned to the city’s culture and commerce, you begin to realize that in fact the military is everywhere.

On my first evening in the capital, I got a taste of how the officer corps has insinuated itself into political life: A well-connected colleague brought me to a lavish wedding reception in the Hotel Serena for the daughter of the minister of the interior, Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao.

I expected to see bigwigs at the reception, and I did. The surprise—at a wedding for a civilian government official—was how many had military pedigrees. The reception was chock-full of generals and retired generals, including several corps commanders, the vice chief of army staff, Musharraf’s press secretary, and—briefly—Musharraf himself. Almost all of them were, like Musharraf, wearing suits, not uniforms, but everyone knew who they were. My colleague, a newspaper editor based in Islamabad, pointed them out as they strutted about, nodding like dons to the other guests, the higher-ups accompanied by military secretaries and junior officers, also in civilian clothes. Musharraf himself moved serenely through the crowd, shaking hands and smiling beneficently. As we watched from a corner, my colleague observed wearily, “The line between military men and politicians has totally blurred in this country.”

The army has dramatically increased its role in the public sector since Musharraf took over. “Thousands of officers are now employed in civil jobs; they have the best of everything,” says retired General Aslam Beg, who served as chief of army staff under Benazir Bhutto from 1988 to 1991. One parliamentary opposition leader recently charged that 56,000 civil-service jobs had come into the hands of army personnel (other sources put this figure lower). Retired generals and brigadiers have taken over as chancellors and vice chancellors at Pakistani universities; they also run the post office, the tax authority, the housing authority, and the education department. Retired generals serve as the governors of two of Pakistan’s four provinces.

The armed forces also control more than a hundred private-sector companies and have placed retired officers in the upper reaches of Pakistan’s major businesses and industries. Rao Khalid Mehmood, former defense correspondent for the Nation newspaper in Islamabad and now the Islamabad bureau chief at a startup Pakistani television news channel, told me that at present, the military is the gateway to private-sector employment. Many people believe that “the only way to get a job is to know someone in the army,” he says.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a well-known analyst in Islamabad and the author of Military Inc.: Inside the Pakistani Military Economy, says that the armed forces are major players in real estate, agribusiness, and several other industries. The empire includes banks, cable-TV companies, insurance agencies, sugar refineries, private security firms, schools, airlines, cargo services, and textile factories. The Fauji Foundation, for instance, is a “welfare trust” that is run by the defense ministry and spans 15 business enterprises. It provides cushy jobs for hundreds of retired officers (many retire in their late 40s), pays few taxes, and channels profits into a fund that is intended to benefit retired military personnel. And it is just one of several giant military-run foundations and companies that were set up decades ago and have grown steadily ever since.

The military’s intrusion into commerce is quite visible in Islamabad, if you know what to look for. The logos of the Fauji Foundation and other military-run conglomerates appear on trucks, boxes, and buildings throughout the city. As Hood­bhoy told me, “They own gas companies. They make fertilizer, cement, soap, bottled water. They even make cereals, so when I have breakfast, I can’t get away from them.”

Midway through my stay in Pakistan, I attended a small dinner party in Islamabad. The guests included a handful of daily-newspaper reporters, a management consultant, and a young female member of parliament from Musharraf’s party. All of them—even the president’s own party loyalist—were openly resentful of the military and its stranglehold on political and economic life. As we sat in a cramped dining room, eating biryanis and drinking tea, the group exchanged stories about military privilege. The consultant had recently returned after five years in the U.S., and he had landed a project at an army-run conglomerate that operates 41 companies and employs 15,000 people. He described his discovery that the corporation’s top jobs, as well as those across many of the 41 companies, all were taken by retired officers with no formal business training and little understanding of basic economics. “Finance was managed by a colonel,” he said. “Administration, risk management, human resources—these were jobs given as perks to retired officers.” After several years of underperformance, the conglomerate had requested a bailout of nearly $100 million from the government. His firm had been hired to turn the business around. Speaking of the armed forces’ role in Pakistan’s economy, he said, “They have the power, and they can do whatever they want.”

The parliamentarian added that the army was steadily helping itself to Islamabad’s best land, often reselling it at a significant profit. The main vehicle for the landgrab, she told me, was the Defense Housing Authority, which purchases properties from private parties, for development and distribution to the officer corps. As a rule, she explained, the market value of the development escalates sharply once the military buys the property, because it is immediately regarded as prestigious and highly secure. “The corps commander gets a kickback from the real-estate developer,” she said, and then “distributes the plots to lower-ranking officers [at government-subsidized prices], and sells what’s left to civilians at a huge profit.”

One afternoon, my driver, a 40-year-old Pashtun who had spent 20 years in the army as a chauffeur for the top brass, took me on a tour of his former employers’ neighborhood. We drove 12 miles from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, an old city of mosques and bazaars that during colonial times was the site of a British cantonment. Today it is the location of Pakistan’s general military headquarters, and large portions of the city have been taken over by housing developments for the retired military elite. Entering the city on the main Islamabad-Rawalpindi highway, we passed a large air-force base; the bridge where al-Qaeda operatives tried to blow up Musharraf’s convoy in 2003; and a new McDonald’s built on the site of the razed prison where former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, was hanged in 1979 on the order of Zia ul-Haq, the general who deposed him.

We turned into a gated community called “Askari 8,” otherwise known as “Military Row.” Our car crept along quiet residential lanes, planted with palm trees and lined with palatial villas of brick and marble. I might have thought we were in an exclusive Southern California suburb, except for the bronze plaques on the front gates identifying the owners: a former corps commander of Rawalpindi, a former vice chief of staff, a retired head of the ISI. Around the corner lay rows of smaller mansions. These belonged to brigadiers, my driver told me, officers one rank down from general.

The army’s encroachment on civilian affairs has not inspired any kinship between the military and civilians, whom many officers view as inferior. A sense of entitlement is inculcated in the officer corps at the Pakistan Military Academy, in Kakul, a former base of the Indian army set among the pine-forested Himalayan foothills of the North-West Frontier Province. It was established shortly after partition in 1947, as a sort of home-grown version of Sandhurst, the British school where many Indian officers received their military education. In a tranquil setting dominated by snowy peaks, cadets culled from a huge pool of applicants spend two and a half years studying governance and political theory; the syllabus spans the canon of Western and Islamic literature and includes ancient Greek philosophers, Middle Eastern poets and historians, even the Indian military strategist Chanakya. Musharraf graduated from the academy in 1964; it is perhaps telling that since he came to power, the academy has begun offering courses in economics and business management.

The cadets spend as much time training their bodies as their minds. The climax of their athletic training is the “Acid Test,” a multi-hour ordeal of running, climbing, and trudging over difficult terrain, while laden with heavy gear. At the finish, those who complete the test fire celebratory rounds at a target, and look up at an inscription that reads “VERILY THE POWER LIES IN FIREPOWER.”

“Once you are through Kakul, you are the elect—you are a breed apart,” says Tanvir Ahmed Khan, a former Pakistani foreign secretary. The military academy, he says, instills in cadets “a sense of pride and a genuine, deep-seated contempt for everyone outside the military.” That contempt, says Khan, is rooted in a belief that civilian governments have proved uniformly inept and corrupt, repeatedly forcing the military to “rescue” the country from the clutches of incompetent civil servants and thieving politicians—a position that is increasingly ironic as the military dips ever deeper into the public trough.

The Pakistani military’s relationship with the United States has been tempestuous. American and Pakistani soldiers began working together in the field in the 1950s, bound by mutual concerns about Soviet expansionism in the region. The relationship cooled after the United States imposed sanctions following Pakistan’s 1965 war with India, but it warmed up again under the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq: The U.S. Department of Defense moved more than a thousand Pakistani officers through its International Military Education and Training program, or IMET, giving them months of training alongside American officers at elite American military institutions.

Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan, Musharraf’s press secretary until March 2007, spent six months in infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1983. He explained to me how the American training shaped the mentality of thousands of young officers of his generation. “It helps you to establish a better relationship and more understanding [of the U.S. perspective],” he said. “It broadens your outlook.” At a recent gathering of regional commanders in Kabul, Shaukat Sultan formed an immediate bond with an American brigadier he had last seen during his Fort Benning days. “It gave us a connection,” said Shaukat Sultan. “[Now] I can pick up the phone and call him directly.”

Shaukat Sultan was among the last of a breed, however. In 1987, toward the end of the mujahideen campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Congress threatened to impose sanctions if Pakistan continued to develop nuclear weapons. Three years later, the sanctions went into effect, and the United States suspended the IMET program. For the next 11 years, until 9/11, Pakistani officers had little or no contact with the U.S. military (IMET resumed in late 2001). “We lost a generation,” the Western military liaison officer told me. That generation now overwhelmingly makes up the ranks of brigadier, colonel, and major—and includes some generals—in Pakistan’s military.

By the early 1990s, as the Cold War was ending and the United States was disengaging from Central and South Asia, Pakistan’s army had taken on a more Islamist character. Back in 1979, Zia ul-Haq—in an attempt to stir up zeal for the campaign in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen—had enacted a raft of Islamist ordinances, or hudood, posting an imam to every unit, encouraging prayer in the barracks, and installing a religious-affairs directorate at general headquarters. Banners outside army recruiting centers reportedly urged Pakistanis to enlist for the sake of Allah and jihad.

During this period the army and the ISI stepped up covert training of Islamist mujahideen to wage a guerrilla war against India in Kashmir, transforming what had been a largely secular struggle into a jihad—a war to liberate Islamic brethren from the yoke of the “Hindu occupiers.” The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1996—also backed by Pakistan—furthered the military’s goal of bleeding the Indian army in Kashmir; the Taliban allowed the Pakistani army to operate dozens of training camps in Afghanistan for the Kashmir struggle. The Taliban, who are ethnic Pashtuns with direct tribal links to Pakistan’s own Pashtun population in the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan, also provided a bulwark against Afghanistan’s Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance and its key ally, India.

The military’s support for Islamist causes was primarily tactical, and its inculcation of Islamist values in its troops appears to have been halfhearted. Shaukat Sultan told me, “There neither used to be orders during the Zia days that everyone come down for prayers, nor are there orders now. It all depends on the individual commanding officers.” Nonetheless, in February 2000, Lieutenant General Mahmoud Ahmad, then the head of the ISI, claimed to an analyst at the Rand Corporation that “between 15 and 16 percent” of the Pakistani officer corps were Islamic extremists.

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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