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 BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.