Pakistan on a knife-edge: the demise of the Presidency and the US relationship

Pervez Musharraf's resignation as Pakistani President could usher in the most turbulent period in Pakistan’s recent history. As Western governments look helplessly on, the need to initiate confidence-building measures between Pakistan and the West could not be more urgent.

By Alexander Neill, Head of the Asia Programme, RUSI

Pakistan’s otherwise divided coalition government has at long last moved decisively. Not in order to tackle the country’s growing economic and political troubles, but in order to attempt fixing a completely different problem: the future of Pervez Musharraf, who has already been largely sidelined since his party lost in elections in February. ‘It has become imperative to move for impeachment against General Musharraf,’ said Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, apparently now agrees with this move.

With Pakistan’s Presidency now uncertain, the future of the security alliance with the United States coalition lies in the balance. The US dilemma is how to take a balanced approach in promoting democratic plurality whilst underwriting the Pakistani military’s campaign in the north of the country. It will not be an easy task. For, on the one hand, Washington is obliged to push for democratic change in Islamabad while, on the other, President Musharraf and his military chief General Kayani must be kept on-side to ensure that the insurgency in Afghanistan is contained from the south, and particularly in the tribal areas.

When the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 invading Afghanistan as a ‘rogue state’ sponsoring terrorism, Pakistan became its key frontline ally, a position it had previously held when Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet Union. Some seven years since, a lack of definition in strategic intent by NATO allies has resulted in policies aimed at mitigating the scale of the problem, rather than aiming for outright success. The Taliban pose a destabilising danger to Pakistan in a similar way as in Afghanistan and NATO allies are only now coming to understand that any solution to the Afghanistan problem must be inextricably linked to that of Pakistan.

There are difficult choices on who to back. The initial choice was Benazir Bhutto, but her life – and political opportunity – sadly disappeared in one blink last December. But the lingering nepotism and feudal hierarchy of Pakistani factional politics provide little alternative for Washington. Compounding the dilemma is the US Presidential campaign on the horizon which will guarantee a lack of attention on Pakistan at a time when it could have hardly been more needed.

Without Pakistan’s active and full co-operation, the US and the broader international community cannot reconstruct Afghanistan, defeat the Taliban and turn the tide on international terrorism. Recently however, the US has expressed severe displeasure over Pakistan’s alleged lack of co-operation and deep fissures have opened in the Pakistan-US relationship. There is a growing debate about whether the Pakistani state is merely unable to do better or is actively undermining international efforts in Afghanistan and the broader push against international terrorism.

Pakistan has deployed significant forces against militants in its northern border region in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) and close to 1,500 Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives. Pakistan’s security services continue to play a significant role in containing the spread of extremism, and intelligence which Pakistan has passed on to Western allies has been of critical importance. Nevertheless, Pakistan has been increasingly criticised for ‘not doing enough’ to stop cross-border infiltration of militants between Pakistan and Afghanistan, for tolerating the teaching of militant ideology in madrassas and very recently its intelligence service, the ISI has been accused by the US of collusion with the Taliban.

The ISI conundrum is another facet of a poor management of relations. Contrary to popular belief, the ISI is an extremely hierarchical organisation but its civilian officers generally only reach the equivalent rank of colonel. Senior officers of the service are always uniformed, rotated in from the military and are answerable to General Kayani, himself a former ISI chief. The assertion that renegade elements of the ISI are sabotaging the coalition’s efforts against Al-Qa’ida is not supported by hard evidence. The simple truth is that the ISI continues to run a well-organised and deniable operation in the tribal areas to further Pakistan’s strategic concerns in Afghanistan, in exactly the same way as it does in Kashmir with regard to India.

On the eve of the most turbulent period in Pakistan’s recent history, there is a pressing need to initiate confidence-building measures to revive deteriorating relations between the US and Pakistan. Furthermore, a dispassionate and impartial debate amongst NATO allies on the impact of Western strategy on engagement with Pakistan is especially urgent if any solution for the Afghanistan problem is to materialise. But, at least for the moment, Western governments are reduced to just watching impotently, as the real battle for power unfolds inside Pakistan.

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


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