Pakistan's political enemies
By Harlan Ullman
March 12, 2008
Islamabad, Pakistan: After a week in Pakistan, one observation has become striking. The United States may, and "may" is a provisional word, have far more to learn from Pakistan than it from us about governing, the necessity for genuine political compromise and winning the global war on terror.
Both governments are in transition. Both face profound and possibly existential challenges. Both are inextricably linked in a war against terror. But both have nearly polar opposite views about the nature of that war and how to handle it. And both countries view the other's leaders with disdain.
One irony is striking, however. In the United States, no matter how bitter the campaigns may seem, political adversaries will bite the bullet and appear to become political friends. Both parties will promise to work together on a "bipartisan basis." And Beethoven will hear in heaven. Because of intense partisanship and intractable ideological differences, these pledges will likely make little difference come 2009. The crises have simply not become dangerous enough to force Republicans and Democrats to set aside their differences for the national good.
In Pakistan, an opposite phenomenon is underway. President Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) headed by Asif Zardari and the PML (N) led by Nawaz Sharif have been genuine political enemies in the absolute sense for decades. Assassination attempts, years in jail and exile and mutual vendettas between and among all three are realities.
Mr. Zardari will forever hold Gen. Musharraf responsible for his wife Benazir Bhutto's murder on Dec. 27 by failing to provide better security. One would have thought that based on this history, Pakistan currently has less chance of political reconciliation than the United States.
But, if Pakistan is to emerge as a successful and whole state, all three leaders have no choice except to bury these hatreds and grievances and genuinely work together. For the moment, the sense in Islamabad taken from the political, military and media elite is that Gen. Musharraf, Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif understand their country is in great peril and are prepared to control their emotional and personal histories that make our political rivalries look trivial by comparison.
Gen. Musharraf has stated he will do this. Unless he is the world's best actor, to many observers including this one, Mr. Zardari has made a profound transformation from someone with the unsavory reputation of "Mr. Ten Percent" to a responsible leader with a highly appealing and attractive strategic, political and economic vision and a political understanding of the limits of power and the absolute need for non-partisan action. Mr. Sharif remains the wild card who because of building public pressure, would be unwise to play the role of spoiler.
Regarding the question of what the Bush administration has consistently considered to be the global war on terror, let us be clear. The United States and Pakistan are not in agreement. Misperceptions on this point also lead to subsets. Many in the United States believe Pakistan is not doing enough in fighting this war. Pakistanis are cynical about America's long-term commitment and history of abandoning Pakistan as it has done in the past.
Both Gen. Musharraf and Mr. Zardari, whose party along with Mr. Sharif's will control the all-important national assembly or Parliament, share a similar strategic assessment of how to win the war. A common aspect is the proposition that the war in Pakistan is Pakistan's and that only Pakistan and not the United States can win it. This means that no matter how power is shared, Pakistan is going to move to a position more independent of America's.
One of if not the major tension that will be generated is over defining and dealing with the threat. From a Pakistani perspective, the principal threat is not from al Qaeda but from militants, some of whom may be al Qaeda and who are intent of taking over the country. The United States sees al Qaeda as the main enemy to be destroyed or eliminated and includes the Taliban in that category. Pakistan does not see the two in that light and believes, much as the U.S. military has done in Anbar province in Iraq, to woo dissident Sunnis away from al Qaeda, dialogue and negotiation with the Taliban are essential in winning this war. The United States would be wise to listen.
Finally, neither public has much regard for the other's leaders. Of all the dividing forces and factors, this may be the most divisive. Hence it is imperative to build more bridges between the two states so that fact and not fiction and actions and not rumors are the basis for a better understanding.
Of course, these assessments may prove naive or wrong. While hope is not a strategy, what at face value is a gathering perfect storm might indeed lead to safe passage for Pakistan, the United States and the region. Stay tuned.