Barnett Rubin: Pakistan's Power Puzzle

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Rubin is the director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, and the author of "The Fragmentation of Afghanistan" (2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2002).]

... The Bush administration has decided that in the "Muslim world" a battle is going on between pro-American "moderates" and anti-American "extremists." According to them, the "Muslim world" has a two-party system organized around how Muslims feel about America. In Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf is a "pro-American moderate." Benazir Bhutto is a "pro-American moderate." Therefore it is only logical (and in U.S. interests!) for the U.S. to realign Pakistan politics so that the "moderates" work together against the "extremists."

This ignores a few problems. It is not just a random problem that the "pro-American moderate" institution headed by General Musharraf executed Benazir's father and held her for years in solitary confinement. Despite Musharraf's propagation of the PR slogan, "enlightened moderation," the institution that he headed, and which put him in power, supported the Taliban unstintingly for many years and failed to deliver any results against al-Qaida when it would really have counted. This is the same institution that massacred hundreds of thousands of its own countrymen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The administration's plan for Pakistan was based on a model of transition from authoritarianism that took place in several Latin American countries, which is known as a "pacted transition." (If you want to know more about it, Google "transitology.") The basic idea is that the "moderates" in the bureaucratic authoritarian regime and the "moderates" in the democratic opposition negotiate a peaceful process of extrication of the military from power through elections, which may initially be "guided" rather than "free and fair." Of course the administration seem to have neglected one of the research's main findings: pacted transitions give rise to "democracies with birth defects." Among those birth defects are continued control by the military over key areas of policy and the limited consolidation of democracy. Much depends on what the leaders of the military are actually trying to accomplish.

This already happened in Pakistan. In 1988 General Zia-ul-Haq's hand-picked Prime Minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, got in several conflicts with Zia over Afghanistan (the negotiation of the Geneva Accords and the explosion of weapons destined for the Afghan muijahidin at an ISI warehouse in Rawalpindi). After the as yet unsolved Case of the Exploding Mangoes, which killed General Zia, ISI Director General Akhtar Abdul Rahman, and U.S. Ambassador Arnie Raphel, the military dismissed Junejo and agreed to a reasonably free election, which was won by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. After the death of General Zia, whom Bhutto and many Pakistanis held responsible for her father's death, she was able to return.

But her electoral victory did not settle the issue. Bhutto first had to negotiate with the military and agree not to remove military authority over security issues, notably Afghanistan, the nuclear program, Kashmir, and senior military appointments. After the failed attempt by the ISI with U.S. backing to orchestrate the conquest of the Afghan city of Jalalabad in March 1989 (using not only Afghan mujahidin but also al-Qaida), Bhutto sacked ISI director General Hamid Gul. Other conflicts with the military ensued. As a result, the military had President Ghulam Ishaq Khan remove her on corruption charges in August 1990. The military and bureaucracy rigged the elections in October 1990 so that she would be defeated by Nawaz Sharif.

I will come back to the election rigging, because the government used the same technique that it was apparently planning to employ this time as well, namely the establishment of "ghost polling places" to return fake ballots in key constituencies identified by the ISI's Electoral Cell. This method of rigging is not visible to foreign election observers.

When Nawaz Sharif in turn became too independent, it was his turn to be sacked. This was followed by two rounds of alternance determined by the military (Bhutto in 1994, Sharif in 1996). The final confrontation between Nawaz Sharif and General Musharraf was provoked again by a struggle over the military's prerogatives. Sharif charged that Musharraf organized the Kargil campaign in Kashmir on his own initiative, while Sharif was pursuing negotiations with the U.S. over Bin Laden behind Musharraf's back.

The leaders of the Pakistan military, of which Musharraf is a typical example, do not see themselves primarily as "pro-American moderates" battling with "anti-American extremists." They see themselves as responsible for building a powerful militarized state in Pakistan representing the heritage of Islamic empires in South and Central Asia against the threat from India and the selfish maneuvers of politicians (not necessarily in that order). In the course of doing so, they have enriched themselves and gained control of much of the economy and civilian administration. The military has always aspired to control the judiciary as well, and Musharraf has now restored to that institution the supine illegitimacy that it possessed under General Zia. This means of course that the use of institutional power for private gain by the military is legal (as the judiciary has no power over the military), while similar use of institutional power by civilians is "corruption."

The military allies with the U.S. because that is the only way to get the weapons and money for their national security project and to prevent the U.S. from aligning with India. It has nothing to do with "moderation." The "pro-American moderate" Pakistan military has used the "anti-American extremist" jihadis for its national security project. (By the way, the Afghan Taliban were not originally anti-American. In 1997, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, who later became foreign minister, told a meeting I was chairing at Columbia University that the Taliban would help the U.S. "in its struggle against international terrorism," and nobody wanted to build the Unocal pipeline more than they did.)

The goal of the Pakistan military has been neither moderation nor extremism as defined in Washington. Its goal has been to stay in power in order to pursue its national security project, which is also in its institutional interest and the private interest of its members. So why did Musharraf enter into negotiations with Bhutto? As Chief of Army Staff, Musharraf occupied a role similar to that of head of the ruling party in a one-party dominant system. His party, the military, unlike the other parties, is a disciplined cadre organization which, along with its fellow travelers (civilian allies of the military) controls all the key levers of power, including the civil administration and the judiciary. Such control is, it believes, required by the national interest. Musharraf added to this an economic policy under the guidance of his Prime Minister, former Citibank official Shaukat Aziz, that has indeed succeeded to some extent. In fact it helped create the middle class and new communications media that are leading the fight to oust Musharraf....

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