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No Time to Desert Musharraf

In the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and accompanying political instability in Pakistan, the U.S. should continue to back President Pervez Musharraf. Pro or con?

Pro: The Right One, for Now

It is true that the U.S. has damaged its credibility with the Pakistani people by adhering to a Pervez Musharraf-centric policy over the last seven years. The U.S. should have maintained closer ties to civilian leaders throughout this period and not limited itself to a policy that sought primarily to ensure President Musharraf’s political survival. But earlier this year, Washington shifted its policy away from solely supporting Musharraf—particularly when his popularity plummeted over the dismissal of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the country’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, in March—and convinced him to shed his military uniform. It was a major step toward restoring civilian democratic rule.

But yanking U.S. support from Musharraf at this moment of crisis would be unwise. Pakistan now has a leadership vacuum. It must have a commanding figure heading the state. For better or worse, that person is Musharraf.

U.S. support for Musharraf should be qualified, however, and rest on the premise that he will use his position of power to develop a consensus with the major political players, especially former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and and the new leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Musharraf will have to overcome his personal animosity toward Sharif and work with the new PPP leader.

Musharraf should consult with the election participants and focus on establishing an environment conducive to transparent and fair elections within the next few months. This process would include ensuring the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press.

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination proves that curbs on political freedom (like the recently established media code of conduct and detention of civilian politicians and lawyers) do not help prevent terrorism in Pakistan.

To help stabilize Pakistan and prevent it from spinning out of control after the Bhutto murder, Washington must continue to support Musharraf and the Pakistan military. But the U.S. must also insist that Musharraf make political reconciliation his No. 1 priority. As part of the political reconciliation process, Musharraf should allow for an international investigation into Bhutto’s assassination. Recent video footage of the murder appears to contradict the government’s claim that she died from a head concussion, rather than a gun shot wound, which contributes to an overall sense of mistrust of the Musharraf government. If he cannot, or will not, play a unifying role for his country at this critical moment, Washington will have to reconsider its continued support for the Pakistani leader.

Con: Distance Is the Best Policy

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination reveals flaws in the Bush Administration’s personality-driven approach to foreign policy. By continuing to support Pervez Musharraf, the Administration is backing a regime that lacks legitimacy with the Pakistani people and has proven unable to diminish terrorism—even with the draconian powers Musharraf assumed in November.

For too long, the Bush Administration has extended unconditional support to Musharraf while watching him tear civil society and the rule of law asunder. When Musharraf illegally tried to dismiss Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Administration responded with silence. Musharraf then tried to restrain the lawyers’ movement resisting this attack on judicial independence, and he attempted to censor the TV networks covering the mounting criticisms of his regime. Again, the Administration said nothing—even as it decried similar rights violations in Venezuela.

Musharraf’s initial efforts failed, for the lawyers’ movement garnered mass support, the media continued to broadcast dissenting views, and the Supreme Court reinstated its Chief Justice. However, likely emboldened by Washington’s silence, and fearing a court judgment declaring him ineligible to be President, Musharraf imposed martial law and cracked down on civil society to remain in power.

Musharraf claims his crackdown was necessary to combat terrorism. The facts suggest otherwise. While Musharraf has aggressively violated the fundamental rights of his opponents—lawyers, journalists, students, and others—his government’s efforts to combat extremists have remained ineffective. At least 15 suicide bombings have taken place since the crackdown.

By uncritically backing Musharraf at the expense of Pakistan’s democratic moderates, the Bush Administration is undermining the very segments of society necessary for democracy and the battle against terrorism to succeed. Instead of backing particular personalities—which led to Washington’s misguided effort to manipulate a backroom deal between Musharraf and Bhutto—the Administration should support democratic processes and institutions more generally. By expanding nonmilitary aid, pushing for restoration of judicial and media independence, and supporting Pakistan’s civil society institutions, the U.S. can help lay a stronger foundation for Pakistan’s transition to a mainstream civilian regime with popular legitimacy.

Whatever might have been true earlier, Musharraf’s purposes no longer coincide with those of the U.S. We want an end to terrorism and a stable, democratic Pakistan. He apparently wants to remain the potentate in charge. The U.S. should stop supporting Musharraf and start supporting Pakistan.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Dev Varma

The Pakistan mess is a nearly 30-year corrupt money triangle involving Islamabad, Riyadh, and Washington.

Ms Curtis's Heritage Foundation, like so many others in Washington, is a beneficiary of Saudi "sponsorship." No wonder she wants status quo or U.S. taxpayer continued funding of Musharraf, ISI, Taliban, and Al Qaeda. All facets of the same Jihadist mob.

The Pakistan army is Al Qaeda light. The key, as Mr. Kalhan has pointed out, is to support Pakistan--by reading the riot act to the army: "Go back to the barracks, have fair elections now, or no money ever."

But given the corruption in Washington, particularly at the State Department, where most people have worked for the Saudis, this is unlikely to happen. They will do what is good for the Wahhabi expansionism, not what will benefit Pakistan or U.S. interests in the long run.


President Pervez Musharraf joined the war on terror right away when Bush asked him to. Al-Qaeda has tried to kill him more then once. Four militants were given over to the U.S., and 1,000 Pakistani soldiers have died in the tribal areas. Pakistan does everything that has been asked of it and has suffered for it.

Aamir Jan

Despite all his obvious faults, Musharraf is at this time the only option available to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Rather than pressuring Musharraf to do what he obviously will not in the short term--i.e., releasing controls on civil society--a way must be found to first defuse the violence erupting from all sides. That may require martial law in some provinces (Sindh, NWFP) for a few months.

Elections will not achieve that goal. In fact, these elections will be the most violent ever unless Musharraf is able to clamp down on civil disturbances in the short term. Only then can free and fair elections be held.

I don't agree with the view that "quick" elections are the answer to the problem. The state machinery is not equipped to deal with such a large exercise and maintain law and order at the same time.


I don't know whether to be amazed or horrified at the duplicity of the policies that the Heritage Foundation advocates with a straight face. First, they want the U.S. to use its resources and taxpayer cash to "fix the world" and eliminate all dictatorships and militant rogues to promote a democratic world. At the same time, they want to continue supporting embattled dictators who are despised by the public they've subjugated.

So which one is it? Do we just leave the dictators we like and get rid of the ones we don't? But that would contradict the idea of promoting democracy across the world. How would you promote democracy if you select which people should or shouldn't be freed from a dictator? You get freedom, but that guy in the corner who has to put up with some army general who declared himself lord and master of him several decades ago doesn't even get a say in how he's treated because it's not good for current realpolitik?

All right, so do we just off every last dictator, totalitarian, and authoritarian out there and go to war with a third of the planet to give everyone "freedom"? Even if every democratic country in the world combined for this task, they wouldn't have the money and resources to pull that off. Not to mention that it would mean the Saudi rulers would have to be toppled, and since Aramco is a constant source of oil and Prince Alwaleed has billions piled up in major international companies based in the U.S., that would not be the best possible business decision in the short run.

And that brings us to Musharraf and the conundrum that exposes the duplicity of the Heritage Foundation's and other conservative think tanks' advice to America's executive branch. He's not liked, his opposition is being offed in a violent way, and he had to be cajoled into surrendering a military autocracy for a semi-civilian one. According to the Heritage's lofty essays, he's a prime example of a totalitarian dictator who needs to be moved out of power. At the same time, they advise support for this dictator because they don't see anyone else and know that no matter what happens, he will be winning whatever mock election he sets up to retain power and they want to make sure they stay on the winning side in Pakistan so they could continue prodding him to fight al Qaeda.

However, he hasn't proven himself as a critical ally by any stretch of the imagination on that front. Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is still, and has been, a Taliban stronghold since early 2003. Sure, out of the goodness of his heart, Musharraf handed over a few militants demanded by the U.S. in scandalous cases such as notable beheading victims. But handing over a few wanted terrorists while the Taliban makes itself at home on his borders isn't exactly a stellar effort in the "war on terror."

Musharraf will not rest until he once again secures his power in Pakistan, and the U.S. would do well not to back a very unpopular and increasingly suspect dictator if it wants to be taken seriously in its gospel of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. And the Heritage Foundation should stop giving advice until they figure out what it is that they're advocating in regard to foreign policy. But if it's anything like the policy advice they give in domestic and social affairs, expect biased essays and faulty research done by passionate activists with a clear and obvious agenda and a dogmatic duplicity that only makes sense to the initiated.


Pakistan is a lost cause. This was a nation formed on wrong principles and will never survive as is. It will eventually split into Punjab, Sindh, NW Frontiers, and Baluchistan.

The U.S. should just clean them on nukes and forget about it as they have just been using us for a long long time.

Aamir Jan

Starting with Nehru, Indians have been claiming that Pakistan will never survive (Nehru gave us five years to live some 60 years ago). Over time, they have qualified this claim by adding the phrase "as is." Well, no country remains "as is." Pakistan will bounce back. Political deaths have happened before in this Asian subcontinent, and everyone survived. India's founder, Gandhi, was killed by a Hindu fanatic. Indira Gandhi, a serving prime minister, was killed by Sikh fanatics. Rajiv Gandhi, another serving prime minister, was killed by Tamil fanatics. The country survived, and so will Pakistan. As for the "nukes," India has to live with a nuclearized Pakistan.


The problem isn't Musharraf; the problem's Al-Qaeda. Everywhere they go, they provoke riots, civil wars, and bloodshed. They claimed credit for Bhutto's murder. In Iraq, they said that democracy was "un-Islamic." Nobody can raise their heads without getting them cut off.

Things don't get any better when the nuts get power. Ask the liberated villagers in Iraq. They torture you for the least offense.

Musharraf may be bad, but democracy can't be restored until the terrorists are caught.


Musharraf not only delayed the election until Feb. 18 but also failed miserably at controlling looting and arson, which cost Pakistan millions of rupees that otherwise could have been saved if he had announced the steps taken yesterday.


My father is a politician in Pakistan; he was sent to jail when we were in opposition to Bhutto's government in the mid-1990s. Today, after her assassination, my whole family and I are very sad, without looking toward the past and what her husband and today's chairman did to us. We will remember and miss Bhutto always. May God give her soul in peace. Musharraf is a fine person, and he can save Pakistan from this bad situation. We are thankful to Britain and America, who are with us in this troubling situation.


Pakistan needs Japan's equivalent of a McArthur plan. Its constitution must be irrevocably amended to force its military and intelligence services to be a "self defense" entity. Democracy will then sprout, and we hope, flourish under active international watch. Otherwise, there is no hope.

swati nikam

Supporting Pakistan amidst the current situation would be a genuine mistake on the part of the United States. It's high time the U.S. confront the facts. The consequences of previous U.S. help to Pakistan is bared in front of the world. Supporting one in times of crisis is a noble deed, but the U.S masks its personal interest in this act of nobility. So before it's too late, the U.S and Pakistan should judge their standing and act accordingly.

Just Don't Go to India

Pakistan and India have been at odds on a number of issues. There is terrorism in India and some locals resent that their culture is changing, youth's outlook on family and values are evolving, and some just do not like the U.S. Sabotage attempts have already taken place and trains have been blown up. Probably do not have to do much to some of the infrastructure as it is likely to crumble with neglect. There are problems between India’s Hindu and Muslim populations and the caste system is alive and well in India.

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