Alternatives to Musharraf

By Craig Cohen and Rick Barton
Special to's Think Tank Town
Monday, May 21, 2007; 12:00 AM

U.S. policy toward Pakistan since September 11, 2001 has made its president, General Pervez Musharraf, indispensable. This is unfortunate -- and leaves us unprepared for rapid political change in a complex, nuclear-armed state of 165 million people.

Our business-as-usual approach has run up against a dynamic situation in Pakistan. The protests inspired by Musharraf's sidelining of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry have turned violent, dissatisfaction with Pakistan's government and its legacy of official impunity is growing, and social, economic and regional divisions are not being addressed.

Rumors abound that Musharraf will declare martial law and suspend elections scheduled for the fall, or that he is negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party. Military leaders in Pakistan, however, have a limited shelf life, and the U.S. government should be prepared for an unexpected transition.

America has not pushed for democratic reform in Pakistan, channeling almost all of its $10 billion in assistance since 2001 through Pakistan's military and security apparatus. This support has continued despite the acknowledgement of senior U.S. officials that the main objective of the aid -- dismantling militant networks -- has not been reached.

How dangerous would it be should Musharraf disappear from the scene? Many analysts remain confident in the Pakistani military's ability to maintain a grip on power, provide a moderating and pro-Western influence, and hold the country together in the face of secession threats, sectarian strife or public unrest.

The strength and character of Pakistan's military is worthy of further scrutiny, however. Anti-coalition militants in the northwest tribal areas held off eighty thousand Pakistani soldiers in 2005-06, and some of the lower ranks of Pakistan's military are said to harbor deep anti-American sentiment. U.S. analysts and decision-makers have fallen into an uncomfortable reliance on Pakistani security agencies for information, and knowledge of the lower ranks is slight.

Would we know if change were approaching? Increased lawlessness in Pakistan -- such as what we are beginning to see on the streets of Karachi and elsewhere --could lead to a growing lack of faith in Musharraf and the military's ability to lead. If this unrest spreads to the Punjab, the military may not be willing to take measures to maintain law and order.

Change in Pakistan, if it comes, could happen quickly, and the United States must stay ahead of the curve by laying the foundation now for the next phase in the relationship. Simply staying the course in Pakistan is no longer good enough. What the United States says and does matters in Pakistan -- and Pakistanis are watching carefully.

The answer is not as simple as pressing for free and fair elections, although we should. Musharraf needs his George Washington moment -- either taking off his uniform or walking away from power.

Many of the problems that plague Pakistan and its relationship with the United States -- including the lack of trust on both sides -- will not disappear overnight. America has not convinced Pakistan's people that we are committed to their long-term prosperity, and official Washington treats the country as a problem child in between its two favored brothers, India and Afghanistan.

The United States needs to increase its trusted partners throughout Pakistan and to begin a broader dialogue that produces a new strategy for engagement and assistance. Reaching more deeply into a rich and diverse society and distributing risk is a wise way to deal with uncertainty. The military may be seen as the most effective institution in Pakistan, but its reach is limited.

Pakistan's four provinces are larger in population and size than many European countries. Rather than threatening aid cut offs to Pakistan, the United States should maintain current levels, but reward provincial, city and local governments, opposition parties and civil society organizations that share our long-term objectives in Pakistan.

Rather than bemoan that Musharraf is America's only alternative, we should start contributing to the development of new leaders across the country.

The Chaudhry-inspired protests have demonstrated the important symbolic role that Pakistan's five chief justices, at the national and provincial levels, play. The United States should encourage Musharraf to establish a truly independent review of Pakistan's chief justices -- including Chaudhry -- with international participation. This could provide a way out of the present gridlock, as well as address a chronic weakness in Pakistan's ability to administer law and order from the police stations to the courthouses.

The United States also ought to listen to the 9/11 Commission and invest more heavily in Pakistani education. The fiscal 2008 budget request was the lowest total for education since 2004. Pakistan continues to underspend on public education, thus encouraging often questionable alternative schools, and a soon-to-be-released CSIS study shows that the U.S. has only spent 2.54% of our total assistance in this vital area. We should triple this amount.

The pressures in and on Pakistan are intense. Expanding our partners, negotiating a new relationship and shifting our aid could help.

The United States must put itself on the side of the Pakistani people before it finds itself overtaken by events. We should not be the last to realize that Musharraf may be indispensable only to us.

Craig Cohen is deputy chief of staff at CSIS and a fellow in its Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project. Rick Barton is a senior advisor and co-director of CSIS's Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.

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