Even before Benazir Bhutto lost her life this past week it seemed to be that the troubles of that far off country were speaking as much about our own country’s politics and principles, as those of Pakistan.First there was the controversy over Barrack Obama’s comments about the Taliban and al-Qaeda resort to the western frontiers of Pakistan. The Democratic presidential candidate found himself being criticized by rivals even within his own party for a fairly basic observation: Six years removed from September 11th, it was just a bit odd to still be sitting by, hat in our lap and waiting for permission to root out the actual culprits behind the attacks. Knowing full well the region where their strongholds and hiding places are, we await “an appropriate time” to bring them to justice.
A misdirected war had been premised on the capture of these people. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been expended. Obama was somehow rash and reckless to argue we should presume the prerogative to pursue our actual enemies into the territory of a supposed ally. This was apparently very naive of him.
Senator Obama was supposed to have understood that we have a great ally in The War on Terror in the nation of Pakistan and in the person of General …er, President Pervez Musharaf. We have celebrated this rare friendship over the years, funneling something in the order of $10 billion in U.S. aid to the regime since the Fall of 2001 (just about the time Musharaf regime stopped openly supporting the Taliban).
Oh, the past year saw the fruits of this supposed friendship called into question somewhat. Late 2006 had seen Musharaf broker agreements with regional tribal leaders that in essence established a zone of refuge for the remnant Taliban and al-Qaeda forces along the border country with Afghanistan. Where five years of deployment for the military under his command had failed to subdue our common enemy, the good general suggested that turning the responsibility over to local tribal elements who were largely sympathetic to the Taliban cause would be the logical course of action. Not surprisingly this gave rise to a resurgence of actions against U.S., NATO and Afghan forces in the neighboring region and no small amount of tension between Musharaf and the Afghan government of Hamid Kharzai.
“There’s no question that sanctuary exists, and that it’s a major asset for the Taliban,” Lieutenant General Douglas Lute explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony this past Spring. “We ought to press Pakistan for at least an acknowledgment that the deal that they made has not worked out,” Committee Chair, Senator Carl Levin responded. (Seems reasonable.) Of course, the ranking Republican and designated White House water carrier on the committee, John Warner of Virginia counseled caution and explained that Musharaf was “doing the best he can.” We shouldn’t disturb the general …er, president with too much overt criticism.
The Musharaf regime doesn’t take well to criticism. Witness the shutdown of critical Pakistani print and broadcast media, as they sought “to address the national crisis” of this past year. Witness the jailing of dissident political voices and the wholesale clearing of a troublesome judiciary that was willing to question the constitutionality of his recent election. Witness the mass arrests and official violence. As I said, they don’t take well to criticism
A recent New York Times article reports the after more than six years and $10 billion in aid virtually no progress has been made in the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistani frontier. There is little doubt that the bulk of the funds have gone to other purposes. While raw paramilitary recruits cling to aging Kalashnikof rifles and ten rounds of ammo each, patrolling snowbound passes sandal clad and shivering, millions are spent on rocket defense systems obviously geared to counter weapons in India’s nuclear arsenal (yes, another of our allies). Billions more in American aid is scheduled to arrive over the next period of years, the years it is expected to take to properly train and equip the Pakistani forces currently deployed in The War on Terror. (Is it just me or do we always seem to “train and equip” forces that end up embarrassing us in the short term and haunting us in the long term?)
An unnamed Defense Department Official, a source for the New York Times article, sums it up this way: “I don’t forecast any noticeable impact. It’s pretty bleak.”
Time and time again, as the political crisis in Pakistan has unfolded we have been reminded that Pakistan is a nuclear power and that General … er, President Pervez Musharaf is our dear dear friend. His brazen practice of strongman quasi-democracy has been openly condoned by American politicians on the one hand and —at best, timidly discouraged on the other. With opposition leaders in jail and the entire political culture in a “lock down” mode, President Bush famously opined that our ally had yet to “cross any lines” he was aware of. Hilary Clinton chided Obama for his remarks on Pakistan because, when running for president, what we say “might have consequences.”
The sad violence in Pakistan. Perhaps it really does say as much about us as it says about them. Just today I read a piece by conservative columnist James Zumwalt. He advised that we might not want to worry so much about Musharaf’s foibles when it comes to democracy. We might want to look the other way, or as he put it “be very mindful into which corners of the globe we shine freedom’s beacon of light.”
The argument is an old one, and a cynical one: Democracy, it’s a great idea for the right people at the right time, but for dangerous societies like Pakistan’s of today something a little less than that will have to do. That is the calculation we make as we fear the prospect of an Islamic state with nuclear arms. We’ve made the same calculation about the liability of democracy too many times in our recent history. There have always been men with names like Marcos or Pinochet, Trujillo, Suharto, Diem, or even Saddam Hussein, men ready to broker our fears into power with our anxious and ultimately embarrassed support.
One of the things Benazir Bhutto was arguing for, as she campaigned for the upcoming elections, was a rejection of that false choice between security and freedom. She wanted to see beyond the spectacle of political violence and terrorism. She wanted that for her own people, but just as importantly she wanted the world to see this. She had pledged to confront the violent extremists, not to abide by them and she planned to do this with something much more effective than helicopter gunships or police state repression. She campaigned on the idea that the most effective weapon in the face of terrorism was the clear mandate of legitimate democracy. There are those who argue that her murder is evidence of her mistaken outlook. To my mind, they only take the crime one step further.
* Tom Driscoll lives in Holliston MA and publishes “Not Silence”