The Pakistan Conundrum

The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhuto has prompted much instant analysis and 'Monday morning quarterbacking' by observers of that volatile region. Early assessment's agree that public sentiment in Pakistan has turned decisively against both President Pervez Musharraf and the Islamic Parties who oppose him (and from the ranks of which the alleged assassins were recruited). President Musharraf himself has given weight to such assessments by reaffirming Pakistani sovereignty (he would treat any unilateral American military incursion into the Northwest Frontier as an invasion which he would oppose by force) and by projecting his own personal political vulnerability (he expects opposition parties to make gains in the coming elections, and if the newly empowered majority seeks to impeach him, he will resign).

President Musharraf's pro-American posturing and the material support Pakistan has provided in the so-called 'Global War on Terror' have been decidedly unpopular among the majority of the Pakistani population. Islamabad has always tried to tread lightly when it came to an American military presence on Pakistani soil. The quick 'victory' of the U.S.-led Northern Alliance over the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan allowed inconvenient American military bases in Pakistan to be transferred to the newly conquered territory inside Afghanistan. However, continued resistance in Afghanistan from the Taliban and al-Qaida, who depend on support networks throughout the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, have prompted the United States to pressure Pakistan's government to crack down, and even in some cases to allow direct action on Pakistani soil, either in the form of the CIA or a military intervention.

President Musharraf has acted against pro-Taliban militants in the Northwest Frontier, but with negligible results. Indeed, much of the Islamic militancy in Pakistan today has been stirred up by the regime's continued support of American-inspired operations in Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf's recent statement opposing unilateral American military intervention in Pakistan sends a clear signal that the ongoing opposition in Pakistan to continued support of U.S. military activity targeting Pakistanis has resonated politically.

The political unrest created by Musharraf's ongoing support of the U.S. 'Global War on Terror' prompted the Pakistani Dictator to seek stability by firing Pakistani Supreme Court Justices he disagreed with, and to suspend the Constitution. Both actions have left him vulnerable to impeachment if political opposition parties are able to assemble a viable majority in the Parliament in upcoming elections expected in February. Musharraf has indicated he will not be a political pawn in any resultant call for accountability. The question remains whether or not Musharraf will resign and depart Pakistan as a political exile, or resign and reassert himself as Dictator, or resign and throw his support behind a new military dictatorship which will enable him to remain in Pakistan as a behind-the-scenes power broker.

Some would scoff at the notion that Musharraf would seek to re-impose military dictatorship in the face of a growing demand for democracy and the rule of law. While Pakistan plays lip service to the notion of Parliamentary democracy, the reality is that it is first and foremost a Muslim nation born more from a call for Islamic identity than a desire to embrace the Magna Carta-driven democracy of its colonial masters, the British.

The secular nature of Pervez Musharraf's dictatorship disguises the fact that Pakistan as a nation was birthed in an environment of Islamic national identity. Pakistan from its inception was supposed to bring together the Muslim populations of the former British Indian colony into a viable nation state. While many of those who oversaw the formation of the new governmental structure were moderate, even secular lawyers trained in the British tradition, the overwhelming population of what was to become Pakistan traced their loyalty to a system of local elders and religious figures who more often than not referred to Shar'ia, or Islamic law, when pronouncing decisions of government. This duality is reflected in the resolution passed by Pakistan's early leaders on the eve of what was to become the country's constitutional convention. It proclaimed: "Sovereignty under the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone," and characterized Islamic values as essential in any new government.

But Pakistan is no homogeneous Islamic state. Its roots are deeply seated in tribal, familial and ethnic realities that most non-Pakistani observers are ill-equipped to comprehend. An illustration of this can be found simply by noting that Benazir Bhutto, the martyred symbol of democratic reform, in reality sat at the head of a political party, the PPP, which was born not from Pakistani society in general, but rather from the ranks of the 700,000-strong Bhutto tribe. The Bhuttos, an ethnic Sindhi group, possess an insularity that belies the image of democratic reform embraced by Benazir Bhutto herself. An ongoing rift within the PPP over Bhutto's successor illustrates this: Benazir's husband, Zardari, together with her son, Bilawal, have claimed the leadership of the party, citing a controversial and challenged 'will' which emerged following Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Neither Zardari nor Bilawal are considered to be part of the Bhutto tribe, because Zardari is of Baluchi heritage and the son is traditionally linked to the family tree of the father. It is not the history of corruption that surrounds Zardari, or the inexperience of Bilawal (a student in the UK), which the Bhutto tribe finds objectionable, but simply the fact that a political party founded by, and for, the Bhuttos is now in the hands of someone outside the tribe.

Pakistan's population of 170 million people is comprised of three major ethnic groups, the Punjabi, Pashtun and Sindhi, who account for some 44%, 16% and 14% of the population respectively. Indian Muslin immigrants, or Mujahirs, make up about 8% of the population, while the Baluchi make up another 4%. The remaining population is divided among other minorities, including the Kasmiri and the various tribes which make up Pakistan's Northwest Frontier. There are also some 3 million Afghan refugees still residing in Pakistan today, a tragic remnant from the time of the Soviet invasion and occupation of that land. Pakistan's historical roots, when it was divided into an eastern and western state, led in part to three major wars (in 1948, 1965 and 1971) and several minor skirmishes between Pakistan and India. The historical turmoil surrounding the creation of Pakistan, as well as the inconsistent ability of its federal system to hold together the wide variety of ethnic and religious groups brought together to form the country, combined to create a system imbued with a spirit of distrust between the various ethnicities. The animosities created by this distrust are manifest in Pakistan's special intelligence service, which was formed to better deal with not only threats from abroad, but also threats from within. The highly politicized nature of this intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI, has only caused further intrigue and uncertainty for the nation.

The Pakistani ISI played an instrumental role in using Islam as a tool during its struggle against India, as well as its opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Makhtab al-Khidamat, or MAK, was one of many Islamic organizations which were funded and supported by the ISI. Operating out of bases inside Pakistan, the MAK was founded in 1984 by Abdullah Yussuf Azzam, a Palestinian Islamic scholar and theologian, and a Saudi follower, Osama Bin Laden. using money provided by Bin Laden, and working closely with the Pakistani ISI, Azzam and the MAK established a base of operations in the Northwest Frontier city of Peshawar, a scant 15 miles from the historic Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Azzam and the MAK put into operation a system of logistics and communication between the Northwest Frontier and Afghanistan which provided material and financial support to the Afghan Mujahadeen fighting the Soviet Army. The MAK was also able to funnel a few Arab Mujahadeen into Afghanistan, although this number never rose above a few hundred. With the assassination of Azzam in 1989, the leadership of the MAK was transferred to Osama Bin Laden, who in 1988 formed an alliance with the head of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri which today is known as al-Qaida.

The links between Osama Bin Laden and the Pakistani ISI were deep. The MAK lines of communication between Peshawar and Afghanistan, established during the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, were continued and strengthened during the 1990's, this time as part of the al-Qaida organization, with the full knowledge and support of the ISI. Pakistan had been taken aback by the violent infighting between the various Afghan Mujahadeen forces in the aftermath of the Soviet defeat and withdrawal in 1989. In an effort achieve stability in Afghanistan, the ISI supported the rise of the Taliban, and with it the support to the Taliban by the Arab Mujahadeen of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida. Pakistan was one of only three nations to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

The al-Qaida-Taliban connection was also seen by the ISI as a means of maintaining contacts with Saudi and other Gulf Arab sources of funds needed to sustain not only stability inside Afghanistan, but also to promote instability inside Indian-occupied Kashmir. Training camps set up by al-Qaida in Afghanistan to recruit and prepare foreign Mujahadeen for operations worldwide were supported by the ISI as a means of training covert operatives for activity in Kashmir. al-Qaida and its Arab funders returned the favor by assisting the ISI in establishing mirror-image facilities inside Pakistan which were used to train paramilitary forces for operations in Kashmir. In 1999 Pakistan sent a large force of paramilitary operatives across the border into Kashmir disguised as Kashmiri rebels. This gambit failed, and in doing so exposed the reality that the ISI was heavily involved in training Islamist extremists to do their bidding, both in Kashmir as well as Afghanistan.

The support provided by the ISI to Osama Bin Laden was extensive. When American cruise missiles struck al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in 1998, in retaliation for the terror bombings carried out against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, among the casualties were Pakistani ISI agents working with al-Qaida. After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Pakistan was forced to reconsider its public support of the Taliban. The ISI made an effort to convince the Taliban to turn Osama Bin Laden over to a neutral third party so he could be tried for the 9/11 attacks, but this offer was rebuked by the Taliban leadership. The collapse of the Taliban as a military force was so rapid in the fall/winter of 2001 that when a large number of al-Qaida forces were surrounded in the northern Afghan city of Konduz, a large number of ISI agents and operatives were trapped with them. One of the secret annals of the Afghan War is the story of how the Pakistani Government negotiated with the United States to permit the evacuation by air of several hundred Pakistani ISI personnel who had been working with al-Qaida in Afghanistan. It is alleged that in addition to the Pakistani evacuees, numerous high-level al-Qaida fighters were likewise withdrawn, in particular those with intimate knowledge of the ISI activities involving Kashmir and the Central Asian republics.

The ISI also plays an important role in the internal politics of Pakistan, monitoring various ethnic and tribal groups who are deemed to be questionable in terms of their absolute loyalty to Pakistan, or at least the Pakistan supported by the ISI. In doing so, the ISI has established relationships with all the major tribal and ethnic groups, and is thus able to play one off against the other in a giant game of divide and conquer. One of the targets of the ISI was, and is, the PPP Party of Benazir Bhutto. The intelligence agency had made use of its considerable links with the Islamist elements of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier to generate an Islamic opposition to the return to power of Benazir Bhutto, and there is good reason to believe that the ISI was involved, either directly or indirectly, in her assassination.

The unfortunate reality of Pakistan today is that it is a barely functioning nation state. Federalism, designed to bring together a disparate band of ethnic groups and religious movements, is failing. Democracy, the dream of western-trained lawyers, is foreign to the majority of the population, which largely continues to defer to tribal elders and religious leaders. The nefarious activities of the Pakistani ISI only highlight the reality that Pakistan, today, is not only an untrustworthy member of the erstwhile 'global coalition against terrorism,' but actually a deep-rooted supporter and instigator of the very violence the United States has sworn to oppose since 9/11. Far from being a close ally, the truth is that, if anything, Pakistan is the personification of the enemy we have supposedly pledged to defeat.

Does this mean that the appropriate policy direction of the United States should be to wage war against Pakistan, as we have against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Absolutely not. If anything, the experience of Afghanistan shows that without a doubt the policies embraced by the Bush administration in pursuing its 'Global War on Terror' were fundamentally flawed. In the cause and effect world of reality, as opposed to the 'never-never' land of neoconservative fantasy, any continued push against Pakistan in the name of the 'Global War on Terror' would be extremely counterproductive. Let's not forget that they have the bomb.

The fact of the matter is that the chief enemy in America's fight against terrorism, Osama Bin Laden, is a mere propaganda source who is given more legitimacy the more we pursue him. The continued instability in Afghanistan caused by the ongoing American and NATO occupation is the source of much of Pakistan's current problems. If we truly want to eliminate Osama Bin Laden, we would do well to withdraw from Afghanistan, and work with Iran, Pakistan and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as well as the Taliban, to bring a sense of normalcy back to this tortured country. In doing so, it would become self-evident to all parties that any continued role on the part of Osama Bin Laden would be self-defeating, and he would be dealt with appropriately by those best equipped to do so.

This, of course, is the last policy direction being pursued by any of the candidates seeking election to the office of President of the United States. The bravado of the respective candidate's 'hunt Osama down until he is brought to justice' rhetoric is as empty as their promises to seek stability inside Pakistan, for the two are inherently contradictory policy directions. To pursue one is to fail on the other. But, as has been the case with Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran beforehand, one would be foolish to believe that the people of the United States, let alone those they seek to elect to higher office, would deign to formulate policy with the reality of the region in question, and not the American domestic political dynamic, in mind. Today, in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, America flounders in a sea of uncertainty and sorrow. Sadly, there is no good reason to believe that any future Captain of our Ship of State will be any more successful in navigating the challenges of the Pakistan Conundrum.

Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books, including "Iraq Confidential" (Nation Books, 2005) , "Target Iran" (Nation Books, 2006) and his latest, "Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement" (Nation Books, April 2007).

(c) 2008

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