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The Overly Simplistic Logic of Washington’s Pakistan Policy

Commentary, 3 December 2007
Americas, Terrorism, Central and South Asia
The simplistic logic of US policy in Pakistan which posits a dichotomy between these two core aims is misleading and should lead to a broader reassessment of US policy in the war on terror.

General Pervez Musharraf’s decision last month to impose emergency rule in Pakistan presented the United States with a difficult situation that struck at the heart of the War on Terror.

Senator Joe Biden’s response to the imposition of emergency law in Pakistan questioned the Musharraf-centred policy adopted by the current US administration. He was partly right; the US has heavily supported Pervez Musharraf, but as part of broader policy framework narrowly focused on the indispensability of the Pakistani army.

US support for the military government of Musharraf has remained unwavering since 9/11. Thrust into the front-line of the ‘War on Terror’ by the invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was re-classified a vital area for American national security. Policy has since been driven by a Faustian bargain with the Pakistani military; moral and financial support in return for ensuring the stability of this large, impoverished, and most importantly, nuclear-armed Muslim nation.

Democracy was thus once more sacrificed on the altar of security. But the simplistic logic of US policy in Pakistan which posits a dichotomy between these two core aims is misleading and should lead to a broader reassessment of US policy in the war on terror.

Policy towards Pakistan has been transactional. Roughly $11 billion of US aid has flowed into the country since 9/11, with the vast majority of these funds earmarked for the military. Returns in security improvements have not been forthcoming. Security has actually worsened during the last six years. Pro-Taliban and Al-Qa’ida-linked militants have gained control throughout large swathes of the volatile northwest tribal regions. From here, extremism and jihadist influence has spread inwards to major towns and cities. For the past two years, Musharraf has stood by as just 100 km away from the capital, the formerly peaceful Swat Valley resort was seized by violent Islamists. This consolidation of extremism has impacted on security in neighbouring Afghanistan. NATO military officials have repeatedly criticized Islamabad for its lax attitude to cross-border infiltration by militants based in Pakistan.

The failure is partly a structural problem of military governments; armed forces cannot be effective in military combat if their focus and energy is distracted by political battles, nowhere more so than the hothouse of Islamabad politics. Western diplomats have been concerned for some time that Musharraf’s attention was increasingly monopolized by political manoeuvring. The recent constitutional crisis justified these fears. Despite official assurances to the contrary, emergency rule was not directed against rising Islamic militancy; police, intelligence agencies and the military have been diverted from battling jihadists to enforce a brutal crackdown on moderate, secular elements of society such as the legal profession, political opponents and human rights activists. Militants are likely to seize the opportunity offered by authorities chasing political activists and suppressing legitimate demonstrations, leading almost certainly to a decrease in security and further violent attacks against state infrastructure or high-profile political figures.

Common conceptualizations of the relationship between security and democracy are further undermined in Pakistan. US policy is based on the assumption that the Pakistani army is the only force capable of providing stability. The sole alternative to military rule is widely believed to consist of a weak and unwieldy democracy unable to withstand a takeover by radical Islamists. Contrary to this perception however, the Pakistani army is actually a powerful force of instability.

Elements within the Pakistani military remain sympathetic to extremist and violent jihadist groups and the complex web of connections between them are increasingly well documented. Former Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers such as Khalid Khawaja have repeatedly iterated the close ties that link jihadi leaders straight to the top army officials of different times.

Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies have long been implicated in the formation and training of guerrilla fighters and extremist militants who have been deployed in Kashmir and other subcontinent hotspots. Unintended consequences have brought insecurity home to Pakistan, however: many groups created to fight in disputed Kashmir can now be found in western Pakistan, fighting government forces.

Insecurity within Pakistan is not always an inadvertent by-product of misguided foreign policy. The Pakistani government, in an increasingly desperate attempt to quell troubles in Baluchistan, has been engineering the ‘Talibanization’ of the province. Federal aid has been funnelled to pro-Taliban provincial ministers in the region and a sizeable Taliban presence in Quetta ignored.

Indeed, the army has a vested interest in the continued survival of radical or violent groups. The Pakistani army has used Islamist organizations as a tactic to maintain political control. Parties such as the Jamiat-i-Ulama-i-islam, which keeps in close contact with the Pakistani Taliban, have proven useful to the secular General Musharraf because their presence verifies his claims that the Pakistani military is the last, indispensable bastion against extremism. Furthermore, Musharraf has used these parties as a balancing tool against the power of rival mainstream political players such as Bhutto’s PPP. In so doing, the army’s traditional role as national arbiter has been preserved.

Threats posed by the rise of Islamic extremism are therefore actually manifestations of the nexus between radical groups and the military. US support for the Pakistani army therefore confuses cause and consequence, the realization of which should finally challenge the common misperception in US foreign policy that Pakistani stability depends on support for the military. More broadly, it should undermine the assumption of a dichotomy between democracy and security which should no longer gird US foreign policy in the War on Terror.

The US needs to reorient its Pakistan policy, from one based on a relationship with the military, to an engagement with the Pakistani people. Identifying the problem is half the work. Far harder than the US accepting the failure of its blinkered pro-military strategy in Pakistan, is the implementation of a reorientation of US policy to Pakistan away from the military. Voltaire’s quip that Prussia was an army with a state is equally valid here; Pakistan’s military is the state. Military companies provide the population with banking services, construction services, education, insurance, energy, real estate and even modern consumer goods. For all its faults, the army is also the only force with the potential to successfully clampdown on cross-border Taliban infiltration and fight the rising tide of militancy in the border regions. The US therefore cannot simply abandon the army. Equally however it is too late for the faux-democratic rule proposed in the now-defunct Bhutto-Musharraf.

US policy must therefore be radical but gradual; it will need to be a long-term strategy based on long-term gains. A meaningful democracy in Pakistan will require a generation of socio-economic progress drawing on political, economic and diplomatic energy. A minor but suitable first step would be to review aid to Pakistan. 18 per cent of the government budget is spent on the military with only 1 per cent on health and 2 per cent on education.[1] Only 10 per cent of US aid since 9/11 has gone on development, civil societies and humanitarian assistance. Non-military aid must therefore be increased to bolster the moderate segments of society which are suffocated by a bloated military establishment.

The administration need not fear the consequences of a reorientation. It has mistakenly bought wholesale into Musharraf’s rhetoric that the military is the last bastion against the mullahs. The Islamist threat, which has cast such a large shadow over western policy-making towards Pakistan, is overstated. Pakistan’s democratic equation is not the same as Palestine’s. Free elections do not equal Islamist victory. The polling of the Muttahidda Majlis-E-Amal Pakistan (a coalition of Islamist parties) in the 2002 elections was weak, gaining just 11 per cent. The opposition to Musharraf is grounded in secular political parties, a vibrant legal profession, and secular, moderate human rights workers and NGOs. Polls suggest secular, democratic parties would win a free election.

The internal dynamics of Pakistan would appear to be propitious for this change of tack. Seven years of military rule have once more discredited the army as a political agent and an increasingly vociferous political opposition, rallied by the Choudhuri affair, will be further provoked by Musharraf’s brutal crackdown. A basis for reform is the far-reaching ‘charter for democracy’ signed by a broad coalition of parties in 2006. If implemented successfully the charter would limit the power of the military, restore democracy and bolster civil society organizations. Only through such measures will the moderate majority be rallied, which as UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband argues is the only way to combat the rising tide of radical and violent Islamism in Pakistan.

Nearly two weeks into the crisis, the signs for a change in US policy do not look good however. Administration officials appear to be finally losing faith in Musharraf and are preparing for the eventuality of his political demise. But discussions have concentrated on which Pakistani generals the administration should reach out to which suggests policy remains centred on the indispensability of the military and blinded by a false separation between security and democracy. Pakistan is in ferment and though the hour may be late, a radical overhaul of US policy is timely.

Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] CIA Factbook

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