Interviews October 2007

The Pakistan Question

Joshua Hammer, author of "After Musharraf," talks with Atlantic senior editor Joy de Menil about Pakistan's future and its implications for the United States

What Pakistani officials are saying is that Musharraf’s election for a third term will take place between September 15th and October 15th.

Okay, so then play it forward. You have a Parliamentary election. Benazir is allowed to run, with some sort of coalition. She becomes prime minister, and then… By that point,  assuming Nawaz Sharif does not manage to disrupt the process, Musharraf will be the sitting president, so what happens then? I guess the question is: does he take off his uniform or not? I’m not sure what the chronology is going to be at all.

Some people are speculating that he will hold the election very early—on September 15th or 16th, and then go to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly where he is scheduled to give a speech on the 18th or the 19th.  So by the time of the UN General Assembly, it’s very possible that something will have happened.

One of the things that comes through clearly in your piece is that the power in Pakistan lies perhaps not so much with Musharraf as with the institution of the army. The army has a great deal of ability to affect the political process. It’s involved in election tampering. It anoints certain candidates and it can also scupper certain candidates. And it has—as you describe in vivid terms—a pretty extraordinary hold over the private sector, over real estate, over almost every conceivable area of the economy.

And yet, what’s so interesting about this phenomenon in Pakistan is that it’s subtle. I spent a lot of time in Nigeria during the height of the Abacha dictatorship. And there was a very, very oppressive uniformed military presence in the streets. It was in your face—you know, military governors in uniforms sitting in state houses, army personnel everywhere… It’s a lot more subtle in Pakistan.

I think the best example of this—a metaphor for the role that the army plays—is, as I describe in the piece, a wedding I attended for the Minister of the Interior’s daughter. You wandered into this tent and there were all the heavyweights of the Pakistani government. Everybody was in civilian wear, mingling together. But more than half of the people in that room were current or retired military officials. It was the party of a civilian minister, dominated by military men in civilian clothes. So they were a powerful and yet almost invisible presence, as they are in the society. And it was clear from this glimpse of Pakistani society who was running the show here. Under Musharraf, over the last years, the military has become more and more and more entrenched, so it’s hard to believe that even if Benazir Bhutto becomes the prime minister, the military is going to somehow recede. There is a perception, in the West and elsewhere, that Prime Minister Bhutto will radically change the essential power structure of Pakistan. I don’t think that’s quite going to be the case.

Chaudhry, the chief justice who was fired and then recently reinstated after months of protest, gave a speech at a University just a couple weeks ago, and he was asked by one of the members of the audience whether, constitutionally, the President could hold the position of army chief of staff. His answer was no. So it’s possible that there will be a judicial showdown. In Pakistan, though, people often posture; they’ll take very strong positions in public, and then retreat towards accommodation. So it’s hard to know what will happen.

Pakistan feels fairly volatile to me now. The dynamic has definitely changed, and power has ebbed away from Musharraf quite significantly, I think. Wouldn’t you agree?

I think it definitely has. I was stunned by the discussion of his possibly declaring a state of emergency, which seems like a sign of fairly acute desperation. It may be an attempt to bypass the chief justice.

What struck me when I was in Pakistan was the way that the country resembled other quasi-dictatorships. You had all of these governmental structures—the Parliament, the Supreme Court, and elected state assemblies. And yet Musharraf was so obviously in control, at least at the time, that those institutions were seen as weak and accommodating. And yet somehow it’s now clear that this quasi-dictatorship was indeed just that: Musharraf really did not control the process as tightly, as authoritatively, as he – or we—thought he did.

It seems to me that the U.S. has essentially swung from one extreme to the other. It’s done an about face. Until April of this year, it was perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to Musharraf’s abrogation of the constitution, to the fact that he was steamrolling the opposition, that people were disappearing, and that there were great abuses in civil liberties. Interestingly, this was all happening in tandem with a tremendous opening of the press and a great boom in the economy. So Pakistan under Musharraf has seen a certain amount of liberalization, but also some heavy-handed tampering in the political process. Political intimidation and thugery has been very real.  There were a number of members of the opposition, when I was living in Pakistan, who were arrested–kidnapped, essentially–by security services, and then beaten up. The leader of the opposition in Baloochistan was killed by government forces last year, sparking violent protests, and receiving almost no international coverage.

Yes, I guess there have been some disappearances, but I didn’t get the sense it was anything quite so extreme as the Nigerian military dictatorship, which I keep using as an example.

True—it’s not nearly so brutal.

But if you look closely at the whole political process, it was rigged, there’s no question. It was rigged in a lot of different ways; and, as you say, intimidation was one of the main methods.

Towards the end of your piece, you have a poignant interview with one of the foot soldiers in the Pakistan army, who was involved in skirmishes in the Tribal Area. The perspective he brings is illuminating, in that it demonstrates the constraints within which any leader of Pakistan will be operating. This man spoke quite passionately about how unwilling the Pakistan army was to turn its guns against other Pakistanis. And so, when the U.S. says to Musharraf, “You have to go in; you have to go after these people,” it’s quite complicated. It’s easy to make this demand from the vantage point of Washington. But what happens when your own military refuses to actually do it? When you’re asking your military to fight its own countrymen? Musharraf’s willingness to send the army into the tribal areas – which has endeared him to us—is one of the reasons for his tremendous unpopularity at home.  The Bush administration claims that it wants to see more democracy in the Muslim world. But a democratically elected leader will be far less likely to do our bidding.

My sense is that Musharraf views al-Qaeda as the enemy. He views the Taliban as the enemy. He does not want to see the Talibanization of Afghanistan or of Pakistan. He would like to eliminate that threat, but simply can’t. But he does not have the will of the army behind him. I don’t think there’s any question.

This raises a larger question about the extent to which the right approach to tamping down extremism in the Tribal Areas is to send in the military. We have to ask ourselves more rigorously about the effectiveness and the limitations of our War on Terror. We started with a range of different approaches, including many incentives and infrastructure development. But we’re left now, six years down the line, with a largely military, one-note solution. And it’s not clear at all that it’s working.

One of the things I found very refreshing in your piece is that it punctures a widespread myth that it’s either Musharraf or the extremists. You make it quite clear that there is an eccentric but healthy political party base in Pakistan, and that when you have elections, what is interesting is how poorly, in point of fact, the religious parties have done at the polls. The MMA did better than expected in 2002, when the war in Afghanistan inflamed anti-American sentiment. But its record in office has been poor. It will be very interesting to see how it does in the upcoming election this November or December.

Pakistan is a land of extremes. There’s no question about it. It’s a nuclear-armed country with a significant radical Islamic element. On paper, it looks like a pretty frightening entity. It’s been called one of the world’s most unstable and dangerous states, yet everyone I talked to  – and I talked to a vast array of people – gave me the sense that this place, should Musharraf go tomorrow, wasn’t going to be taken over by radical Islamists or crazy Strangeloveian nukers, but that there would be a kind of grim continuity about the place in terms of policies, in terms of the pursuit of al-Qaeda, more or less along the lines of Musharraf. That’s what struck me most about my time there. To a certain extent, I came away feeling reassured. I could be completely wrong; it could fall into total anarchy and collapse, or become an Islamic state tomorrow, but I just don’t get the feeling that it’s heading that way at all.

Joy de Menil is a senior editor of The Atlantic.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Joy de Menil

Joy de MenilSenior editor Joy de Menil joined the Atlantic staff in 2005. Previously Editorial Director at William Heinemann in London and a Senior Editor at Random House in NY, she published a number of acclaimed books, including Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919, Milt Bearden and James Risen's The Main Enemy, Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty, and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, a #1 New York Times bestseller. In the acknowledgements for his book A Middle East Mosaic, the preeminent scholar Bernard Lewis wrote that Joy's "combination of a sharp mind and gentle manner, of vision and vigilance, have made this a much better book than it would otherwise have been."

Joy grew up in Paris until the age of ten. Before coming to The Atlantic in Washington, D.C., she spent six months living in Pakistan and two years in London. She also spent a year before college (Harvard) traveling overland through Africa, from Morocco to Zimbabwe.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In