The Last Chance Saloon
Journalist Ahmed Rashid looks at the near-term political scenarios in Pakistan. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
At the same time Gen Musharraf's dwindling popularity, his half hearted moves against the extremists and the army's stark failure in defeating the Pakistani Taleban in the tribal borderlands, contrast sharply with Ms Bhutto's determination to confront rather than appease the extremists.
Her defiance goes down well in Washington and other Western capitals, but not with the army which since 11 September 2001 has played a double game of giving sanctuary to some extremists while attacking others.
Moreover other political parties and much of the mainstream media are either too scared to condemn the extremists, or they sympathise with them and do not want to appear pro-American or antagonise that section of the public which has become far more religiously conservative since Ms Bhutto was last in Pakistan nine years ago.
The standard model of analysis in the West is that Ms. Bhutto, supported by a general election mandate, will restore popular legitimacy to Pakistan’s government. This legitimacy, combined with General Musharraf’s cooperation, will then propel Pakistan’s army to a triumph over the various radical Islamists, now secure in their tribal redoubts. So goes the wishful thinking in Washington.
Instead, Ms. Bhutto’s return is likely to expose even deeper fissures in Pakistani society. The list of those who want her dead, and who are actively plotting her demise, is long and almost certainly includes officers within Pakistan’s security services. It would be something of a minor miracle if Ms. Bhutto even survives to see the general election, scheduled in two month’s time. ...
What is likely to result is something resembling a low-grade, multi-sided civil war. The Islamic extremists will seek to protect and expand their sanctuaries while simultaneously acting out to prevent the establishment of an effective Pakistani government. The army will resist fighting in the tribal areas, will offer minimal cooperation to Ms. Bhutto, and will continue to extract gifts from Washington, pleading its indispensability, while whispering rumors about its nuclear weapons stockpile. Similarly, Ms. Bhutto will display herself as the beacon of democracy in Washington in order to ensure an uninterrupted flow of aid from the U.S., part of which she will divert into her family’s accounts. As she feels the assassins getting closer she may see the wisdom of creating a militia tied to her political party, just like the Shi’ites in Iraq have.
If a low level civil war does break out, every faction will inevitably drag their own international patrons into the conflict, and the game will be played for stakes far higher than in Kosovo; higher even than in Iraq. Never will the lack of a bipartisan strategic consensus be more acutely felt than if Pakistan spirals into a crisis.
At one level the current world terrorist crisis is a direct manifestation of the upheavals in Muslim countries. The contradictions inherent in those societies are boiling over. Those upheavals will have to run their course and their consequences managed, for the crisis to abate. And like any ship heading for heavy weather, thoughts should turn to what's needed to ride out the storm. It may be too early to write off Pakistani stability, but not too early to think about what should be done if slides over the edge.