The FP Debate: Should the U.S. Abandon Pervez Musharraf?

Is it time to send Pervez Musharraf packing? Two top experts on South Asia, Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations and Husain Haqqani of Boston University, square off on the tottering Pakistani president’s fate.

No. Daniel Markey

MARK WILSON/Getty ImagesShow him the door? U.S. President George W. Bush has a shaky partner in Gen. Pervez Musharraf, an increasingly unpopular leader who faces growing Islamist militancy in his country and escalating criticism abroad.

The United States should hold its nose and stick with Musharraf. He currently occupies a unique position in Pakistani politics and could still serve as an essential transitional figure during the next few weeks, months, and possibly even years.

That said, Musharraf should neither be oversold nor given a free pass. He is a flawed leader, one who has failed to achieve many of his own stated goals for Pakistan or to advance Washingtons counterterrorism agenda as rapidly as Americans might like. His declaration of emergency rule represents another serious stain on his record and threatens to undermine two of his biggest accomplishments: Pakistans strong economic growth and the proliferation of its private electronic media outlets.

Musharrafs signal shortcoming since his assumption of power in 1999 has been his inability to build a political party with grassroots appeal. The tumultuous politics of this pre-election year have resulted in large part from the weakness of his Pakistan Muslim League (PML), a party incapable of staving off twin challenges at the ballot box from Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both failed former prime ministers.

Why then should Washington hold on to Musharraf, whose popularity in Pakistan has reached a new low and who clearly stiff-armed the Bush administrations appeals to avoid emergency rule?

In the immediate term, Musharraf offers Washington continuity in the face of uncertain political transition. He is a familiar face, a leader with whom the Bush administration has established a sustained working relationship. Under even the smoothest possible transition scenarios, Musharrafs departure would interrupt bilateral cooperation on military, counterterrorism, and intelligence matters for days or weekswith uncertain consequences for U.S. security.

And it is not hard to imagine that a new Pakistani leader might up the ante with Washington, demanding a better price for bilateral cooperation. The more than $10 billion in assistance the United States has given Pakistan since 9/11 is no natural limit. New Pakistani leaders might also back away from some of the bold steps Musharraf has taken during the past several years, not least Pakistans about-face in its relationship with India, a country that not long ago was threatening to go to war over Kashmir.

Musharrafs fall would not immediately pave the way for Jeffersonian democracy. Pakistans Army, as the nations dominant political institution, would almost certainly call the shots and might well choose to delay the democratic process indefinitely. There is some chance, however, that a post-Musharraf Army would prefer to shield itself from popular protest and would move quickly to national elections. With Musharrafs departure, his faction of the PML would fall apart. By most accounts, populist former Prime Minister Sharif would be the natural beneficiary of this disintegration. He would seize a commanding majority at the polls, leaving Bhuttos Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) frozen out.

Having opposed Musharraf from his exile in Saudi Arabia and Britain, Sharif has felt little love from Washington since 9/11. In his desperation to return to power, he has courted the entire spectrum of Pakistans political leaders, including the Islamists. His center-right base of support now has a stronger anti-American, anti-Western streak than in the past. Sharifs constituents have little interest in implementing policies designed to tackle the deeper roots of extremism and militancy in Pakistani society or in building sustainable democratic institutions.

Bhuttos PPP is the only large party in Pakistan that might conceivably carry the torch for a more progressive, reform-oriented agenda. But for the time being, she must work with Musharraf and his faction of the PML to win power. For his part, Musharraf needs Bhutto in order to retrieve a modicum of national and international legitimacy. Assuming he fulfills his promise to leave the Army and become a civilian president, Musharraf could then serve as a bridge between Bhutto and the uniformed military, gradually completing a soft landing out of power over his term in office.

It is no surprise, judging from their troubled history, that striking a balance of power between Bhutto and Musharraf is proving difficult. Their highly publicized courtship might collapse for good in the coming days or weeks. If so, the United States, Pakistan, Musharraf, and Bhutto will all lose. At that point, looking past Musharraf will become a more realistic option for the Bush administration.

To avoid being abandoned by Washington, Musharraf must take clear and tangible steps to show how he plans to hold elections under emergency rule or roll it back entirely so that Bhutto and other opposition parties can participate. In particular, he needs to remove the provisions that limit assembly and the freedom of the press; otherwise the campaign process will be quite literally impossible.

With a watchful eye, Washington should stand by Musharraf not for what he isan unpopular military leaderand not for what he has beenan imperfect allybut for what he might still be: a transitional figure who offers near-term continuity and medium-term potential for founding a new, more effective configuration of power and governance in Islamabad.