Pakistan's Crucial Election: An Interview

Bill Steigerwald

1/7/2008 2:11:56 PM - Bill Steigerwald

 

Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation was studying Pakistan long before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto hurled that country of 165 million onto our front pages. A former CIA analyst and State Department adviser who specialized in India-Pakistan relations, Curtis has lived in Pakistan and India. As a Heritage senior fellow, she keeps her eye on America's economic, security and political relationships with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I talked to her about the volatile political situation in Pakistan by phone on Thursday from her office in Washington, D.C.

Q: They postponed the elections until Feb. 18. Does that matter in any significant way?

A: I really think an election delay was inevitable. You had one of the primary contestants for the election killed just two weeks before the vote. Given the emotional response in Pakistan -- you had looting and some violence over the last few days -- I think it made sense to delay the election. Now it is important that the Musharraf government use this delay to do everything in its power to assure the transparency and fairness of this election.

Q: In a recent commentary you said Bhutto’s assassination was a significantly depressing development.

A: It is a major development. Benazir Bhutto stood for liberal democracy in Pakistan. She had a vision of making Pakistan a moderate, progressive Islamic state, and this was a direct threat to extremists who have a different agency for Pakistan, who want to destabilize the regime, cause chaos and eventually try to establish a theocratic state without liberties for the people -- surely something that is not democratic in nature. The fact that, unfortunately, these extremists were successful in killing her is an extremely negative development for the Pakistani people, the future of democracy in Pakistan. It’s something that has an impact not only on all Pakistanis but throughout the world. She was a female leader. She had been prime minister twice in her country and people understand the gravity of what her death means. Unfortunately, it shows that Pakistan is increasingly at the center of the battle against global extremism.

Q: Can President Pervez Musharraf survive -- and does it really matter, since he apparently hasn’t been really living up to his promises to run as an enlightened and moderate leader?

A: Yeah. He hasn’t really lived up to that vision that he spelled out three and a half years ago now. He spelled out very eloquently a vision for Pakistan as a moderate progressive state. He coined the term “enlightened moderation.” However, he hasn’t really taken concrete steps to lead his country in this directly, namely closing down once and for all these religious schools, which basically indoctrinate Pakistanis to violence. They teach hatred of the West. They are connected with the militant groups. They are dangerous. So he needs to take steps to close them down, which he has not done.

His government also needs to take a more clear and unambiguous stand towards all terrorism. Pakistan in the 1990s, of course, had links to militant groups that fought in Kashmir; it basically supported the Taliban; it was one of the few countries that supported the Taliban when they were causing trouble in Afghanistan. Even though those official links had been broken, there are still ties at the lower levels of the security agencies. So he needs to do a better job of cleaning house, of getting rid of all those elements, and sending  a clear signal that no terrorism will be tolerated in Pakistan -- no matter the cause and no matter who the person is.

Q: Bhutto was sort of our chosen opposition figure to Musharraf. Now that she is dead, are we going to be able to count on Pakistan as an ally against terrorism and al-Qaida? 

A: The U.S. should never try to micromanage the situation in Pakistan. That is sort of a recipe for disaster. But I think what the U.S. was trying to do was nudge Musharraf toward re-establishing democracy, and that was the right overall policy. I don’t think the U.S. should have ever picked favorites. There is another major opposition leader, (former Prime Minister Nawaz) Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League. I think the message should have been, yes, Musharraf needed to re-establish democracy in his country, but basically focusing on the process, not personalities.

But the good thing the U.S. was able to do was put enough pressure on Musharraf that he did in fact shed his military uniform. One of the major opposition complaints was that Musharraf was holding both the presidency and the chief of army staff position, which he had been doing the last several years. So under international pressure, namely U.S. pressure, he did shed the uniform in November. This was a major step, a major concession to the political opposition.

Now that Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated and the elections have been delayed, certainly Musharraf is head of the state. He is controlling the situation. He has close links to the military. The military is responsible for keeping their nuclear weapons safe and secure. At the same time we have a chief of army staff who is known to the West heading up the military. I don’t think there is any room to panic about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, per se. But I think what is clear is that the days of Musharraf having the popularity that he had a few years ago and running the show by himself are over. It’s clear that we’re going to have an election. There will be a new prime minister -- fresh leadership, which the country needs. The hope is that President Musharraf can work with this new leader and the situation will be stable. But the reality is, Pakistanis are looking for fresh leadership and they are looking for civilian-led democracy.

Q: Are most Pakistanis truly interested in creating a stable and relatively decent democracy?

A: I think most Pakistanis are moderate in their outlook. They do want democracy. The religious parties right now are polling at about 3 percent -- which is lower than they’ve averaged over the last 15 or 20 years. They’ve averaged 5 to 7 percent, which is still a pretty small portion of the vote. The idea that somehow the extremist attacks indicate that Pakistanis by and large want some type of extremist government is not accurate. Most Pakistanis want democracy. They want rule of law and they’re willing to support a stable government. But they have grown weary of military rule. And they have grown weary of Musharraf’s grip on power -- his holding all the power in his own person. They’d like to have an election and have a choice in who leads their country.

Q: Why should we care who is running Pakistan or what kind of government it is?

A: We definitely should care about Pakistan. This assassination of Bhutto only reminds us that Pakistan increasingly finds itself at the ideological center of this battle against global extremism. Al-Qaida certainly has an agenda. They are trying to provoke instability and chaos there so they can have a new base and eventually gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. So certainly the U.S. has to be closely engaged and encourage stability in this country.

Q: Are America's interests and a stable, progressive, relatively democratic Pakistan mutually exclusive?

A: No. They are mutually reinforcing. It’s become increasingly clear that to have a stable Pakistan, we have to have democracy. What that means in the immediate term is a credible election on Feb. 18. I’ll come back again to saying how important it is for President Musharraf to play a unifying role for his country, to build consensus with the political parties so that Pakistan can have a free and fair election. There probably has never been a time that a free and fair election has been more important for Pakistan than right now. It will contribute to stability in the country. It will allow whoever is elected to bring along the public in the fight against terrorism.

One of the problems is that as support for Musharraf has eroded, he has been closely associated with the U.S., and so public support for the war on terrorism has declined, as has public support for the U.S. in general. Pakistanis have only seen the war on terrorism as something that is only important for U.S. interests. That’s just not the case. Pakistan’s own future depends on it fighting extremism. An elected government would be a strong partner for the U.S. It would help bolster the Pakistani public support for fighting extremism.

Q: What should the Bush administration be doing now?

A: The Bush administration has really done a pretty good job in handling the Pakistan crisis. Let’s face it: we’ve had crisis after crisis for the past 10 months. But I think there could be more pressure on Musharraf on this election issue. The elections that we were getting ready to face Jan. 8 were looking increasingly like they were going to be flawed. Now we have the time. The State Department should be using its diplomatic leverage with Musharraf to convince him to make some of the changes that are necessary to bring about a free and fair election. This is important.

The U.S. also needs to increasingly see its security policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan as linked. Their problems are related. We’re not going to have a fully stable government in Afghanistan -- where as you know about 26,000 U.S. forces are fighting right now. We’re not going to achieve our goals in Afghanistan unless we look at Pakistan’s strategic stakes in Afghanistan and also work with Pakistan in addressing the problem of the safe haven for Taliban and al-Qaida extremists located in the tribal areas of Pakistan. We’re going to have to work with Pakistan. The idea of some kind of unilateral U.S. action would probably only provoke more instability and cause the government to fall and succumb to the extremists. I don’t think that is the answer.  The answer is convincing Pakistan to allow us more access to the tribal areas but to work in cooperation with targeted military operations -- as well as economic development assistance when the time is right -- to develop these areas and root out the problems there.

Q: What would characterize operations in those tribal areas in northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan as successful? Aren’t the Taliban and al-Qaida stronger there today than they were five years ago?

A: Absolutely. The tribal areas issue is going to have to be the number-one priority with Pakistan. We just can not tolerate there being a safe haven for our enemies there, who are plotting and training for terrorist activities across the globe, who are destabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and fighting our forces. This has to be our number-one priority.  And yes, the problem has gotten worse.

The Pakistanis had sent troops up (to the tribal areas) in late 2003, early 2004. They were basically keeping these elements on the run, disrupting their activities. Unfortunately, Pakistan struck a peace deal with the tribal leaders in these areas in September of 2006, and it was clear to most observers that the quote-unquote “peace deal” was not going to work and that it would only give freer reign to the terrorists who were residing there -- and in fact, that’s exactly what happened.

The Pakistan government has redeployed its forces in this area. But I don’t think it’s going to be able to handle this issue on its own. I think Pakistan is going to have to allow the U.S. to bring its own military and intelligence resources to bear on the situation. We’re going to have to find out a cooperative strategy, because this is not only a problem for Pakistan. This is a global problem. These extremists in these areas represent a global problem.

Q: It sounds like the game “whack-a-mole.” We didn’t get them in Afghanistan, and now they’re in Pakistan and we have to go there. It seems like we are in a hopeless military situation.

A: Well, it’s not just military -- and it’s not just hopeless, either. We have had success in Afghanistan. We’re not exactly where we want to be in Afghanistan. We still need to work to ensure stability there. And certainly the Taliban has been able to resurge in certain areas in the south and southeast, but the U.S. and NATO forces have had some battlefield successes. The Taliban is not able to go head-to-head with NATO forces, and NATO forces can easily sweep these Taliban forces from an area. It’s just that when they leave, then the Taliban comes back in.

 The key is standing up to the Afghan forces, as well as ensuring we have enough boots on the ground to do what we need to do. The hope is that as the situation in Iraq stabilizes we can increase our troop levels in Afghanistan -- not only U.S. troop levels, but also getting NATO to step up. Clearly, this problem is as much of a threat to the U.S. as it is to European nations. The full range of NATO members need to step up to the plate and contribute.

Afghanistan is winnable. I think we can also be successful in Pakistan. The key is focusing our attention and integrating our Afghanistan and Pakistan policies and focusing a lot more resources on the problem and getting Pakistan and Afghanistan to work together more, as well, and not allowing them to have hostile relations that only contribute to and fuel the overall problem of terrorism.

So I don’t think it’s hopeless. Certainly there is the economic element and once the areas are secure, getting reconstruction socioeconomic projects going, getting people invested in a stable state, also integrating some of these areas into Pakistan politically so that democracy can begin to take root, just as we’re trying to. Part of the problem with the tribal area is that they are semi-autonomous and they don’t participate in Pakistan’s general elections.

We need to focus on economic reform, political reform, and it’s going to take time. But what’s the alternative? The alternative is allowing this region to become a safe haven for terrorists that basically are seeking to cause chaos and take more innocent lives in their destructive agendas.

Q: What should we be most worried about happening in Pakistan in the near term?

A: The worst thing that could happen right now is that an election is held that people perceive as being rigged and as basically being a bad election. That would cause a lot of instability and protests in the streets and a lot of confusion and chaos. The people of Pakistan want stability. It’s now incumbent on Musharraf to ensure that the election process is free and fair. The issue goes beyond him. It’s about his country, a country of 165 million, and its future. It’s extremely important that we have a good, credible election, that Pakistanis buy into the process it, take part in the process and have faith in whoever the elections bring to the fore.