Why Was Washington Surprised by the Pakistan Crisis?

by | Nov 30, 2007

Few reports about the Islamist threat are more alarming than the situation right now in Pakistan–a nuclear-armed country that Washington hails as a “major non-NATO ally.” Having supported Musharraf’s regime, Washington is now scrambling–pressing Musharraf to share power with opponent Benazir Bhutto, then insisting that he’s “indispensable,” but also considering whether Bhutto would be better, […]

Few reports about the Islamist threat are more alarming than the situation right now in Pakistan–a nuclear-armed country that Washington hails as a “major non-NATO ally.”

Having supported Musharraf’s regime, Washington is now scrambling–pressing Musharraf to share power with opponent Benazir Bhutto, then insisting that he’s “indispensable,” but also considering whether Bhutto would be better, if Musharraf falls from power.

All this against the backdrop of the creeping Talibanization of Pakistan. Islamist fighters once “restricted to untamed mountain villages along the [Pakistani-Afghan] border,” now “operate relatively freely in cities like Karachi,” according to Newsweek. The Taliban “now pretty much come and go as they please inside Pakistan.” They are easily slipping in and out of neighboring Afghanistan to arm and train their fighters, and foster attacks on the West.

Why is Washington so unprepared to deal with this danger to U.S. security? The answer lies in how we embraced Pakistan as an ally.

Pakistan was an improbable ally. In the 1990s its Inter-Services Intelligence agency had helped bring the Taliban to power; Gen. Musharraf’s regime, which began in 1999, formally endorsed the Taliban regime; and many in Pakistan support the cause of jihad (taking to the streets to celebrate 9/11). But after 9/11 the Bush administration asserted that we needed Pakistan as an ally, and that the alternatives to Gen. Musharraf’s military dictatorship were far worse.

If the administration was right about that (which is doubtful), we could have had an alliance with Pakistan under only one condition–treating this supposedly lesser of two evils as, indeed, evil.

It would have required acknowledging the immorality of Pakistan’s past and demanding that it vigorously combat the Islamic totalitarians as proof of repudiating them. Alert to the merest hint of Pakistan’s disloyalty, we’d have had to keep the dictatorial regime at arm’s length. This would have meant openly declaring that both the regime and the pro-jihadists among Pakistan’s people are immoral, that our alliance is delimited to one goal, and that we would welcome and support new, pro-American leaders in Pakistan who actually embrace freedom.

But instead, Washington evaded Pakistan’s pro-Islamist past and pretended that this corrupt regime was good. We offered leniency on Pakistan’s billion-dollar debts, opened up a fire-hose of financial aid, lifted economic sanctions, and blessed the regime simply because it agreed to call itself our ally and pay lip-service to enacting “reforms.” After Musharraf pledged his “full support” and “unstinting cooperation,” we treated the dictator as if he were some freedom-loving statesman, and effectively whitewashed the regime.

Since we did not demand any fundamental change in Pakistan’s behavior as the price of our alliance, we should not have expected any.

Pakistan’s “unstinting cooperation” included help with the token arrests of a handful of terrorists–even as the country became a haven for Islamists. Since 2001, Islamists have established a stronghold in the Pakistani-Afghan tribal borderlands (where bin Laden may be hiding). But our “ally” neither eradicated them nor allowed U.S. forces to do so. Instead in 2006 Musharraf reached a truce with them: in return for the Islamists’ “promise” not to attack Pakistani soldiers, not to establish their own Taliban-like rule, and not to support foreign jihadists–Pakistan backed off and released 165 captured jihadists.

Far from protesting, President Bush endorsed this appeasing deal, saying: “When [Musharraf] looks me in the eye and says” this deal will stop “the Talibanization of the people, and that there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be al Qaeda, I believe him.”

We have gone on paying Pakistan for its “cooperation,” to the tune of $10 billion in aid. The Islamists, who predictably reneged on the truce, now have a new staging area in Pakistan from which to plot attacks on us (perhaps, one day, with Pakistani nukes).

Why did our leaders evade Pakistan’s true nature? Faced with the need to do something against the totalitarian threat, it was far easier to pretend that Musharraf was a great ally who would help rid us of our problems if we would only uncritically embrace him. To declare Musharraf’s regime evil, albeit the lesser of two evils, would have required a deep moral confidence in the righteousness of our cause. The Bush administration didn’t display this confidence in our own fight against the Taliban, allowing the enablers of bin Laden to flee rather than ruthlessly destroying them. Why would it display such confidence in dealing with Pakistan?

But no matter how much one pretends that facts are not facts, eventually they will rear their heads.

This is why we are caught so unawares by the crisis in Pakistan. Our blindness was self-induced.

Elan Journo is director of policy research at the Ayn Rand Institute. His latest book -- What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict -- is on American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Visit his website at elanjourno.com

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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