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Pakistan: The Dangers of Conventional Wisdom

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With the continuing military campaign in Afghanistan, the international community has fundamentally shifted its policies toward Pakistan. The government of President Pervez Musharraf has been repeatedly praised as a key ally in the war against terrorism, and the U.S. alone has indicated that it will offer Pakistan more than one billion dollars in assistance. This briefing explores some of the most important dynamics underpinning the international community's revised approach to Pakistan and suggests that much of the conventional wisdom relies on dangerously faulty assumptions with important implications for future policy and regional security.

Few nations have been more dramatically thrust into the spotlight since 11 September than Pakistan. Prior to that date, Pakistan found itself increasingly isolated as a result of a number of factors including fairly transparent military and security support for both the Taliban and militant cross border insurgents in Kashmir, a military takeover of government in October 1999 and deep and persistent economic difficulties.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the government of General Musharraf was directly pressured to cooperate with the Bush administration on a range of issues including condemning the 11 September attacks and assisting in the destruction of Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network, ending support for the Taliban, granting blanket overflight and landing rights and access to Pakistani military bases, and offering intelligence assistance and logistical support. Pakistan moved quickly to assure the United States that it would offer full cooperation, and it was deemed an essential partner in the war on terrorism.

Clearly, Pakistani assistance has greatly facilitated the military campaign in Afghanistan. Given its central role in helping bring the Taliban to power, the withdrawal of direct support was bound to have a significant impact. Equally evident, Pakistan's stability and economic and political prospects will be crucial in shaping South Asia's security picture - no small matter in an area with two nuclear powers and several active terrorist networks. Given its importance in the regional equation, however, it is worth subjecting key assumptions of the international community's approach to Pakistan to closer scrutiny.

The current high praise for the Musharraf government is driven both by appreciation for measures it has taken and by fears of possible alternatives. Western officials, analysts and reporters have warned direly of that government's fragile state and suggested that it could succumb to angry street protests or swelling Islamic extremism. Similarly, much has been made of the influence of extreme Islamic religious parties within Pakistan's political system and public life. Others have pointed to potential splits between the country's military and its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in trying to explain Pakistan's long running support for Islamic extremist groups. All these points are often combined, when viewed against the backdrop of efforts to cooperate with the West since 11 September, to suggest that the Musharraf government has made a fundamental strategic and philosophical shift in recent months.

Unfortunately, many of these claims do not stand up under closer scrutiny. They require glossing over the symbiotic relationship between Pakistan's military and security services and Islamic extremists in recent years as well as the desire of the country's generals to maintain their institution's central role in political life. Far from being besieged by Islamic extremists, Pakistan's military government has carefully used that phenomenon as an essential tool to justify its hold on power, improve its standing with the West, and resist restoring secular democracy and as a tactical means to advance its goals in both Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Unless the international community more clearly recognises this, it will likely cede the current military government far too much latitude in delaying, or denying, long overdue moves to restore democratic governance and create a disturbing impression among the citizens of Pakistan that the West actually favours authoritarian governments over freely elected ones. Giving the Musharraf government carte blanche will only likely drive the country further into its long spiral of corruption and economic malaise. Ultimately, instability in Pakistan would lead to intensified regional instability and help create an environment in which terrorism could flourish.

Brussels/Islamabad, 12 March 2002

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