The endgame of the U.S.-jihadist war always had to be played out in Pakistan. Two reasons explain this. The first is simple: Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda command cell are located in Pakistan. The war cannot end while the command cell functions or has a chance of regenerating.
The second reason is more complicated. The United States and NATO are engaged in a war in Afghanistan. Where the Soviets lost with 300,000 troops the Americans and NATO are fighting with less than 50,000. Any hope of defeating the Taliban, or of reaching some sort of accommodation, depends on isolating them from Pakistan. So long as the Taliban have sanctuary and logistical support from Pakistan, transferring all coalition troops in Iraq to Afghanistan would have no effect. And withdrawing from Afghanistan would return the situation to the status quo ante Sept. 11. If dealing with the Taliban and destroying al Qaeda are part of any endgame, the key lies in Pakistan.
U.S. strategy in Pakistan has been to support Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and rely on him to purge and shape his country’s army to the extent possible to gain its support in attacking al Qaeda in the north, containing Islamist radicals in the rest of the country and interdicting supplies and reinforcements flowing to the Taliban from Pakistan. It was always understood that strategy was triply flawed.
First, under the best of circumstances, a completely united and motivated Pakistani army’s ability to carry out this mission effectively was doubtful. And second, the Pakistani army was — and is — not completely united and motivated. Not only was it divided, one of its major divisions lay between Taliban supporters sympathetic to al Qaeda and a mixed bag of factions with other competing interests. Distinguishing between who was on which side in a complex and shifting constellation of relationships was just about impossible. That meant the army the United States was relying on to support the U.S. mission was, from the American viewpoint, inherently flawed.
It must be remembered that the mujahideen’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan shaped the current Pakistani army. Allied with the Americans and Saudis, the Pakistani army — and particularly its intelligence apparatus, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — had as its mission the creation of a jihadist force in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. The United States lost interest in Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the Pakistanis did not have that option. Afghanistan was right next door. An interesting thing happened at that point. Having helped forge the mujahideen and its successor, the Taliban, the Pakistani army and ISI in turn were heavily influenced by their Afghan clients’ values. Patron and client became allies. And this created a military force that was extremely unreliable from the U.S. viewpoint.
Third, Musharraf’s intentions were inherently unpredictable. As a creature of the Pakistani army, Musharraf reflects all of the ambivalences and tensions of that institution. His primary interest was in holding on to power. To do that he needed to avoid American military action in Pakistan while simultaneously reassuring radical Islamists he was not a mere tool of the United States. Given the complexity of his position, no one could ever be certain of where Musharraf stood. His position was entirely tactical, shifting as political necessity required. He was constantly placating the various parties, but since the process of placation for the Americans meant that he take action against the jihadists, constant ineffective action by Musharraf resulted. He took enough action to keep the Americans at bay, not enough to force his Islamist enemies to take effective action at him.
Ever since Sept. 11, Musharraf has walked this tightrope, shifting his balance from one side to the other, with the primary aim of not falling off the rope. This proved unsatisfactory to the United States as well as to Musharraf’s Islamist opponents. While he irritated everybody, the view from all factions — inside and outside of Pakistan — was that given the circumstances, Musharraf was better than the alternative. Indeed, that could have been his campaign slogan: “Vote for Musharraf: Everything Else is Worse.”
From the U.S. point of view, Musharraf and the Pakistani army might have been unreliable, but any alternative imaginable would be even worse. Even if their actions were ineffective, some actions were taken. At the very least, they were not acting openly and consistently against the United States. Were Musharraf and the Pakistani army to act consistently against U.S. interests as Russian logistical support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan waned, the U.S./NATO position in Afghanistan could simply crack.
Therefore, the U.S. policy in Pakistan was to do everything possible to make certain Musharraf didn’t fall or, more precisely, to make sure the Pakistani army didn’t fragment and its leadership didn’t move into direct and open opposition to the United States. The United States understood that the more it pressed Musharraf and the more he gave, the less likely he was to survive and the less certain became the Pakistani army’s cohesion. Thus, the U.S. strategy was to press for action, but not to the point of destabilizing Pakistan beyond its natural instability. The priority was to maintain Musharraf in power, and failing that, to maintain the Pakistani army as a cohesive, non-Islamist force.
In all of this there was one institution that, on the whole, had to support him. That was the Pakistani army. The Pakistani army was the one functioning national institution in Pakistan. For the senior leaders, it was a vehicle to maintain their own power and position. For the lowest enlisted man, the army was a means for upward mobility, an escape from the grinding poverty of the slums and villages. The Pakistani army obviously was factionalized, but no faction had an interest in seeing the army fragment. Their own futures were at stake. And therefore, so long as Musharraf kept the army together, they would live with him. Even the less radical Islamists took that view.
A single personality cannot maintain a balancing act like this indefinitely; one of three things will happen. First, he can fall off the rope and become the prisoner of one of the factions. Second, he can lose credibility with all factions; with the basic political configuration remaining intact, but the system putting forth a new personality to preside. Third, he can build up his power, crush the factions and start calling the shots. This last is the hardest strategy, because in this case, it would be converting a role held because of the lack of alternatives into a position of power. That is a long reach.
Nevertheless, that is why Musharraf decided to declare a state of emergency. No one was satisfied with him any longer and pressure was building for him to “take off his uniform,” in other words, to turn the army over to someone else and rule as a civilian. Musharraf understood that it was a matter of time before his personal position collapsed and the army realized that given the circumstances, the collapse of Musharraf could mean the fragmentation of the army. Musharraf therefore tried to get control of the situation by declaring a state of emergency and getting the military backing for it. His goal was to convert the state of emergency — and taking off his uniform — into a position from which to consolidate his power.
It worked to an extent. The army backed the state of emergency. No senior leader challenged him. There were no mutinies among the troops. There was no general uprising. He was condemned by everyone from the jihadists to the Americans, but no one took any significant action against him. The situation was precarious, but it appeared he might well emerge from the state of emergency in a politically enhanced position. Enhanced was the best he could hope for. He would not be able to get off the tightrope, but at the same time, simply calling a state of emergency and not triggering a massive response would enhance his position.
Parliamentary elections were scheduled for Jan. 8 and are now delayed until Feb.18. Given the fragmentation of Pakistani society, the most likely outcome would be a highly fragmented parliament, one that would be hard-pressed to legislate let alone serve as a powerbase. In the likely event of gridlock, Musharraf’s position as the indispensable — if disliked — man would be strengthened. By last week, Musharraf must have been looking forward to the elections. Elections would confirm his position, which was that the civil institutions could not function and that the army, with or without him as official head, had to remain the center of the Pakistani polity.
Then someone killed Benazir Bhutto and changed the entire dynamic of Pakistan. Though Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) probably would have gained a substantial number of seats, it was unlikely to sweep the election and seriously threaten the military’s hold on power. Bhutto was simply one of the many forces competing for power. As a woman, representing an essentially secular party, she was unlikely to be a decisive winner. In many ways, she reminds us of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was much more admired by Westerners than he ever was by Russians. She was highly visible and a factor in Pakistani politics, but if Musharraf were threatened, the threat would not come from her.
Therefore, her murder is a mystery. It is actually a mystery on two levels. First, it is not clear who did it. Second, it is not clear how the deed was done. The murder of a major political leader is always hard to unravel. Confusion reigns from the first bullet fired in a crowd. The first account of events always turns out to be wrong, as do the second through fifth accounts, too. That is how conspiracy theories are spawned. Getting the facts straight in any murder is tough. Getting them straight in a political assassination is even harder. Paradoxically, more people witnessing such incidents translates into greater confusion, since everyone has a different perspective and a different tale. Conspiracy theorists can have a field day picking and choosing among confused reports by shocked and untrained observers.
Nevertheless, the confusion in this case appears to be way beyond the norm. Was there a bomber and a separate shooter with a pistol next to her car? If this were indeed a professional job, why was the shooter inappropriately armed with a pistol? Was Bhutto killed by the pistol-wielding shooter, shrapnel from the bomb, a bullet from a third assassin on a nearby building or even inside her car, or by falling after the bomb detonated? How did the killer or killers know Bhutto would stand up and expose herself through her armored vehicle’s sunroof? Very few of the details so far make sense.
And that reflects the fact that nothing about the assassination makes sense. Who would want Bhutto dead? Musharraf had little motivation. He had enemies, and she was one of them, but she was far from the most dangerous of them. And killing her would threaten an election that did not threaten him or his transition to a new status. Ordering her death thus would not have made a great deal of sense for Musharraf.
Whoever ordered her death would have had one of two motives. First, they wanted to destabilize Pakistan, or second, they wanted to kill her in such a way as to weaken Musharraf’s position by showing that the state of emergency had failed. The jihadists certainly had every reason to want to kill her — along with a long list of Pakistani politicians, including Musharraf. They want to destabilize Pakistan, but if they can do so and implicate Musharraf at the same time, so much the sweeter.
The loser in the assassination was Musharraf. He is probably too canny a politician to have planned the killing without anticipating this outcome. Whoever did this wanted to do more than kill Bhutto. They wanted to derail Musharraf’s attempt to retain his control over the government. This was a complex operation designed to create confusion.
Our first suspect is al Qaeda sympathizers who would benefit from the confusion spawned by the killing of an important political leader. The more allegations of complicity in the killing are thrown against the regime, the more the military regime is destabilized — thus expanding opportunities for jihadists to sow even more instability. Our second suspects are elements in the army wanting to use the assassination to force Musharraf out, replace him with a new personality and justify a massive crackdown.
Two parties we cannot imagine as suspects in the killing are the United States and Musharraf; neither benefited from the killing. Musharraf now faces the political abyss and the United States faces the destabilization of Pakistan as the Taliban is splintering and various jihadist leaders are fragmenting. This is the last moment the United States would choose to destabilize Pakistan. Our best guess is that the killing was al Qaeda doing what it does best. The theory that it was anti-Musharraf elements in the army comes in at a very distant second.
But the United States now faces its endgame under far less than ideal conditions. Iraq is stabilizing. That might reverse, but for now it is stabilizing. The Taliban is strong, but it is under pressure and has serious internal problems. The endgame always was supposed to come in Pakistan, but this is far from how the Americans wanted to play it out. The United States is not going to get an aggressive, anti-Islamist military in Pakistan, but badly needs more than a Pakistani military that is half-heartedly and tenuously committed to the fight. Salvaging Musharraf is getting harder with each passing day. So that means that a new personality, such as Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, must become Washington’s new man in Pakistan. In this endgame, all that the Americans want is the status quo in Pakistan. It is all they can get. And given the way U.S. luck is running, they might not even get that.