There are many who will eloquently eulogize and expertly analyze in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s death; and my suspicion is that you have already seen some of those who are far more capable than I weighing in on the event.
It’s my job to venture farther afield....to offer a view that you might not get by reading elsewhere, and that’s where we are headed today: into a conversation that offers practical, although sometimes controversial, advice from Mrs. Bhutto herself...and then suggests the events of the past 36 hours present an unexpected opportunity, if we can grab it.
Of course, this whole line of thought is extraordinarily risky—but with great risk can come great reward.
And with all that in mind, let’s get to work.
Benazir Bhutto announced her intent to return to Pakistan in September; and at that time she laid out specific ideas for her Government in a presentation at the Mideast Institute which will be central to our discussion.
But first, a geography and cultural primer:
The western portions of Pakistan (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the Northwest Frontier Province, and Balochistan) are the sections of the country that today present the greatest security risk. The Pashtun tribes residing in this exceptionally mountainous area have forever travelled around the region; and in fact they have moved back and forth across what is today the de facto Afghanistan/Pakistan border for many, many generations before such a border ever existed.
Important in our short history is the story of how that border came to be...and then how it expired...and how there is legally no border even to this day.
Before there was a Pakistan there was British India; and at the midpoint of the 19th Century a security buffer was created between India’s Pashtun-dominated northwest border regions (and the regions of Afghanistan that lie beyond) and the Punjabi-dominated India to the south.
That 1849 arrangement was augmented by a border deal the British were able to broker between the (Pashtun) Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan and the Colonial Administration in India that created the Durand Line (named after Colonial India’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand) in 1893. Two years of effort followed to actually delineate the Line.
The Afghan Pashtuns were guaranteed control of the region surrounding Kabul as a part of the deal; and the British (and the Pakistani Government, later) have made efforts to keep compliant leaders running Afghanistan. Each party also agreed not to “exercise interference” in the affairs of the Pashtuns inside the other’s borders. (A history of Pakistan “exercising interference” inside Afghanistan for a variety of reasons quickly followed.)
Of course, Turcoman tribes in the northern regions of Afghanistan (remember the Northern Alliance?), uncooperative Pashtuns to the south, and Persians to the west have all at various times resisted these efforts to impose outside control—and the legacy of those battles has continued to this day. (Hamid Karzai cannot currently expand his control beyond the Kabul region any more effectively than the Amir could...and neither could the Russians.)
All of this opposition meant that despite the efforts of the British and the Pakistanis there has never been an Afghan Government that officially certified the agreement—and since the 100-year term of the agreement ended in 1996, with no follow-on agreement in sight...this means there is today no legal border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In recent decades the Pakistani government had adopted a policy of allowing the Tribal Areas near-total autonomy, which lasted until 2001.
This had had at least six effects:
--As a result of their regional autonomy and tribal system of government, local residents do not participate in local or national elections and do not have access to non-tribally administered courts, schools or other social services. There is also the attendant disconnection from the concept of their citizenship as Pakistanis.
--There has been virtually no economic or infrastructure development in the region (Mrs. Bhutto wanted us to know that 60% of Pakistanis live on less than $2 a day); which has kept well occupied the steady supply of unemployable males who have served as soldiers for the various Governments and the opposing tribalist, nationalist, or theocratic movements in the region.
--This lack of development and the artificial partitioning of “Pashtunistan” caused by the Durand Line has also created resentment on the part of the Pashtuns against the Punjabi elites that ruled first Punjabi India and now Pakistan—and the Pashtunis and Westerners that cooperate with them today in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
--This resentment has found common ground with the resentment felt by Afghan Pashtuns who are the backbone of the Taliban...who support the establishment of “Pashtunistan” within newly drawn borders that include areas of Western Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan...which has allowed the Al Qaeda movement to gain sympathy among Pashtuns in Western Pakistan as well.
--Talibani and Al Qaeda interests have formed an “Islamic Emirate of Waziristan” that has officially gained control of larger and larger portions of Western Pakistan...to the point where it is now questionable whether the Pakistani Army can regain control through the force of arms, even if it really wants to.
--As Pakistan’s Army has made efforts to reestablish control in the region since 2001 attacks on Pakistani Army troops by “Pashtunistani” forces have increased in number and ferocity. Mrs. Bhutto suggests this is because the Army is, on the one hand, upsetting the new “extremist” power structure; and on the other hand there is more and more a perception that the Army under Mr. Musharraf’s command represents Punjabi interests against the interests of Pashtuns.
We must also consider another issue before we can move to an action plan: who had the most to gain from Mrs. Bhutto’s death...and who might have done it?
Mr. Musharraf has much to gain from Mrs. Bhutto’s death...maybe.
--It is possible he could use the chaos following her death to further delay any election, either in January, or later, after opposition parties signal they are more willing to participate.
--It is also possible that he could make an arrangement with Army representatives that cements their role in the next Government and marginalizes the opposition further.
--It is also not impossible to conceive of a situation where Mr. Musharraf either tacitly or explicitly made a deal with the very same Pashtuns that are rising in Western Pakistan: eliminate an opposition rival in exchange for some period of freedom from Pashtuni/Punjabi civil war.
I tend to discount all three of these scenarios, however: there is extreme pressure on Mr. Musharraf to keep to the current election schedule (this may change with the decision by opposition parties to not participate in January), the Army seems less willing to continue to support Mr. Musharraf than they have been in the past; and making a deal with the Pashtuns would likely also lead to civil war...with the Army and most Punjabis on one side, and the Pashtuns and Mr. Musharraf’s remaining supporters on the other—a situation even worse for Mr. Musharraf than today’s.
Talaban and Al Qaeda forces have much to gain from Mrs. Bhutto’s death as well:
--Her death could help to create conditions that force the Pakistani Government to negotiate further with the Pashtunistanis...creating a better deal than the Durand Line partitioning ever was.
--The assassination will presumably cause the Pakistani Army and civil authorities to think twice before involving itself further in the “Emirate of Waziristan”; which is also a “prestige” issue for the leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda movements.
--The added prestige improves recruiting and fundraising...inside Pakistan and worldwide. It also reinforces the “inevitability” issue.
--Continuing instability might lead to Government overreach in an effort to clamp down on civil rights in more onerous ways—which should, ironically, help the very forces attempting to clamp down on those same civil rights through the imposition of Shari‘a Law in the territories they control.
Finally, what about the Army?
Will they stick with Mr. Musharraf, seek to install another “civilian” leader—or stage another coup?
The Army has ruled the country for much of the past 40 years, but they seem unhappy with the state of government today...despite the fact that a General has been at the helm of the civil administration for the past 8 years.
The Army is also facing an internal crisis: some of its forces have “defected” to the Talibani forces; and some members of the Pakistani Army have questionable loyalties. The question of divided loyalty (the State or the Taliban?) is even greater in the ISI (the Internal Security Service of Pakistan)—and of course all of this relates to the ability of Pakistan to maintain “command and control” over their nuclear forces.
At this exact moment, these are all what Donald Rumsfeld would refer to as “known unknowns”...but we will offer some speculation as we go along.
Keeping all this in mind, let’s consider some of Mrs. Bhutto’s ideas from that September presentation:
--Mrs. Bhutto wanted Mr. Musharraf to leave office, turning power over to a temporary National Unity Government who would be empowered to hold an election to choose its replacement, but Mr. Musharraf was not willing to make that commitment.
--By one means or another, Mrs. Bhutto wanted the “outsted” Supreme Court Justices returned to the bench.
--She had suggested that Pakistan work on the “four E’s”: education, employment, environment, and energy. She again reminded us of the fact that most Pakistanis are still quite poor—60% living on less than $2 a day.
--The need to reestablish a professional, neutral military—which she suggested needs to start with de-politicizing the military forces.
--She felt that the border dispute needed to be resolved in such a way as to resolve the Pashtun concerns regarding arbitrary boundaries established for political reasons.
--Additionally, she recommended that the Tribal Areas be brought into the national infrastructure...which means creating hospitals, and secular schools, and jobs, and independent courts all outside of the tribal systems—and on an even more basic level, the creation of water resources, which Mrs. Bhutto reports is one of the greatest barriers to local economic development.
One source of jobs that you might not expect: cleaning up cities. Mrs. Bhutto pointed out that cities in her country are filled with mosquitoes and rats and trash; and that many of the unemployed could be put to work in a manner that would immediately improve the quality of life.
And now, at last, we get to the very out-of-the box part of the discussion: what can the United States do to influence events in a positive way?
Before I answer that question, a caveat: none of this will be a “quick fix”, all of it is intended for the long term; and some of it will require us to reconsider many of our thoughts regarding who we will or will not talk to as a nation—or as part of a community of nations.
--Pakistani history has been one of periods of military control followed by periods of...military control; suggesting we will need to remain engaged with the Pakistani military—and in fact all that military aid we have been providing might help open a door.
At the moment we are beginning to engage with leadership in the Pakistani Army other than the recently “retired” General Musharraf...and we ought to offer to increase our training relationships with the Pashtun and Punjabi members of the officer corps, then work our way down the chain of rank.
Rather than offering additional weapons as a first gesture, I propose we offer facilities such as barracks, hospitals and even family housing for the professional military throughout the entire country...along with some of the security enhancements that might be required to help protect the facilities against the Talibani attacks that will surely follow.
--Bill Richardson has suggested that we “pull the rug” from underneath Mr. Musharraf by withdrawing our support and trying to force his resignation; but instead why not just encourage the Army to form a temporary National Unity Government, leading to relatively free and fair elections...and in a gesture of goodwill, restore the Justices back to the Supreme Court? If it’s done publicly, we could offer Mr. Musharraf the chance to join the process and to look much better in the light of history...and if it’s done quietly, we might find a way to offer Mr. Musharraf a lovely home and future somewhere warm and wealthy.
All of this, if done well, could allow the Army to disengage from Mr. Musharraf without appearing to have done so under US influence. It could also allow the Army to be perceived as the defenders of democracy and the middle class...always a good thing. The best potential outcome would be elections supervised by the military but accepted as fairly run by Pakistanis and outsiders—because such an outcome might help to reduce the military’s image as a “corrupted” element of society.
--There are questions regarding Pakistani nuclear security. It is possible to secure storage facilities using US SOF and air assets to a fairly high degree, assuming the facilities are built in a manner that is defendable...and assuming the Pakistani forces on the site can be trusted. We can also seek the assistance of the IAEA and other UN and NATO assets, and the odds are fairly good that we will get the assistance we seek. All of this can be done in a fairly quiet and low-key manner if we have the cooperation of the Pakistani commanders. Rumors suggest such a process has been negotiated and may already be in place.
The same applies to the delivery systems—assuming we have accurate baseline numbers on erector/launchers, warheads, “loose” fissile material, and missiles currently deployed.
--We have to find a way to create some process of engagement between Islamist Pashtuns and those who support a secular government; and one way to do this might be to support efforts of the Pakistani military and civil administrations to create the infrastructure Mrs. Bhutto wanted to develop in Western Pakistan.
There are several reasons this makes sense: secular schools help us by reducing the role of Madrasa schools that are today teaching an anti-American message to kids, clinics and hospitals help us by teaching Pashtuns that America is not always the Great Satan, new jobs reduce the available supply of soldiers...and all of this helps to create a Pakistani association with the Pashtuns who until now have felt ignored by the central government...except when it comes time to “round up the usual suspects”.
An even more effective way to jump start the association with Pakistan: create local councils and allow local residents to elect their own leadership...and allow participation in national elections as well. Whatever we might do to help this process occur could reverberate to our advantage down the road.
And of course, all of this creates an opposing influence against Taliban and Al Qaeda interests, which is also potentially to our advantage...assuming that we don’t run the thing in such a way as to create even more resentment than exists at the moment.
Of course, all of this requires us to converse with those same Taliban leaders, which creates opportunities for intelligence gathering and the finding of common ground—or as we call it in the US, “networking”.
I’ll end today’s conversation with a theme I’ve presented many times: that the biggest threat to “Islamist extremism”...the thing that keeps Osama Bin Laden up late at night...is the idea of a reasonably content and prosperous middle class that feels they have more to gain by going to work then there is to gain by blowing up workplaces—and themselves.
And believe it or not, this most powerfully sad event might just be the catalyst that allows a variety of positive events to take hold that could leave Pakistan in a better place than it is today...and us as well.