WASHINGTON, D.C.—While George W. Bush’s rhetoric about waging a protracted global “war on terrorism” still has mainstream America reveling in renewed star-spangled pride, as a manifest policy the blowback is already beginning—much to the consternation of South Asia watchers here who had hoped recent events might see the Bush administration push ever-dysfunctional Pakistan closer to democracy and stability.
Instead, the worst kind of myopic Cold War realpolitik seems to be carrying the day, with the U.S. seemingly winking at continued Pakistani support for Islamist terrorism directed at India—the world’s largest democracy—over the disputed Kashmir region. While the Bush administration nodded approvingly last week after Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf rounded up over 100 Islamist militants active in Kashmir, few in Washington see the move as anything but cosmetic; according to a veteran CIA officer, Musharraf will “never be able to gain total control over ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence], who are obsessed with Kashmir,” while others at the Agency and the State Department doubt Musharraf will “ever abandon the Kashmir agenda or supporting violence to realize that agenda,” as a longtime foreign service officer put it.
“So he put a bunch of people under house arrest or preventative detention. Big deal,” the diplomat said. “That’s not going to change patterns of behavior or even curb terrorism. This is a foreign policy that can’t continue.”
Yet it’s the same as it ever was—and a case study of how, in the ostensible name of protecting American democracy, the U.S. government is only too happy to see its development curtailed elsewhere. “The so-called ‘Bush Doctrine’ as applied to South Asia is a descendant of policies going back to the 1950s, with then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles leading the pack to incorporate Pakistan into the crusade against the Soviet Union and as a bulwark against China,” says Harold Gould, a veteran India-Pakistan specialist and visiting professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for South Asian Studies. “In practice, this meant building a military alliance with Pakistan and giving Pakistan military aid—despite the fact that the Pakistanis hadn’t really built any viable democratic institutions and were inclined toward dictatorship.”
Though India was a functioning democracy, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s devotion to non-alignment with either East or West was seen by U.S. hawks as tantamount to being in league with the Soviets—yet another reason to buff Pakistan up, even though “there wasn’t even a whiff of Communist takeover there,” according to Gould. “As U.S. military aid poured into Pakistan in the ’50s and ’60s, Nehru and others repeatedly pointed out that Pakistan was less interested in defense against Communism than in war with India, which is what happened in 1965 and 1971. If Pakistan had not been incorporated into the Western alliance systems and fed a large amount of military assistance, it wouldn’t be in the position of perpetual intransigence when it comes to negotiating with India. And internally, this has made Pakistan into a society that at best moves back and forth between a somewhat benign oligarchy and military dictatorship. Yet the diversity of Pakistani society is on the same order of India, including groups that have strong identities with a nationalist or subnationalist bent. But Pakistani political leadership has locked society down, not allowing any mechanism for real political expression.”
Indeed, the prime objectives of Pakistani leadership have historically had little to do with fostering internal structures of civil society. Rather, they’ve been about realizing grander regional power schemes and reining in troublesome ethnic groups. The past decade was one of ambitious gambits for Pakistan: Ideally, acting as patrons for the Taliban would make Afghanistan a client state and give Pakistan leverage against other national powers in the drive to find and transport the region’s oil and natural gas. Enabling militant Islam in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province would take the edge off Pashtun nationalist efforts. And there was the additional value of having Islamist Afghanistan as a staging area for terrorist efforts directed at the Indians in Kashmir.
But in the post-September 11 world, much of this has gone awry: Though Musharraf hasn’t done much except mouth support for Bush’s “war on terrorism” against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, he’s seen by the Islamists as a sellout—and as many of those Islamists are fleeing from Afghanistan into Pakistan, it heightens the possibility of Musharraf’s speedy demise. “The Taliban refugees constitute a threat to what’s left of Pakistani society—the civilized, moderate elements that Musharraf has tried to link himself with are frightened, because they know that an alliance between the refugee Taliban, the ISI, and the more militant generals could produce a coup,” says Gould. “This new government wouldn’t be a majority, but enough of a plurality if backed by the military machine to make an Islamist dictatorship.”
The safety valve that Musharraf has at this point is supporting continued operations against India in Kashmir—which Gould and others believe the Bush administration is willing to let Musharraf do as long as he goes through the motions of attempting to contain it. Of course, there is another alternative: The U.S. brings all its power to bear on Musharraf to return Pakistan to democracy and facilitate free elections, as he promised he would after a “caretaker” interval when he seized power. “Like it or not,” says Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, “it’s in our fundamental interest to see an emerging Pakistan that’s stable and more democratic and that has an economy offering the prospect of some prosperity. And that means engaging with Pakistan not just by giving them a little bit here and there, but engaging in a real sense, like, ‘We want you to do this—here are carrots, and if you don’t, here are the sticks.’ ”
But to Gould and others, this is more than pragmatism; it is an opportunity to vindicate the whole notion of democracy. “It’s true the BJP [India’s preeminent political party] wants to lead a crusade against the Pakistanis,” says Gould. “But my point is that it’s virtually inconceivable that the radical Hindu right wing of the BJP would ever get that much power, because India’s a viable constitutional democracy with parties that accept a consensual system. The BJP is the largest single part of a ruling coalition, with 25 percent of the national vote. Seventy-five percent of the country votes differently. And this is the reason that [Prime Minister] Vajpayee has emerged as a popular leader and statesman—because he represents the moderate wing of his party, and if you want to be successful in Indian democratic politics, you have to moderate. I believe the same thing can happen in Pakistan if the U.S. doesn’t shovel more military aid to Musharraf and reads the riot act to him about returning the country to democracy.”