Democracy Loses the Honduran Election

It's an abomination that Sunday's presidential vote came without consequence for the country's coup-makers.

After five months of political deadlock in Honduras, conservative cattle rancher Porfirio Lobo seems to have lifted the country out of crisis. Lobo, who shares neither the left-leaning ideology nor the cowboy hat touted by ousted President Manuel Zelaya, handsomely won Sunday's presidential election in Honduras with 55 percent of the vote. Despite the relative dearth of foreign observers present to see the vote, it seems clear that Hondurans turned up in decent numbers, that the election was largely devoid of violence, and that it more or less met international standards. Already, a group of countries led by the United States, Honduras's most vital ally and trade partner, has announced that they will recognize Lobo's victory. They are no doubt relieved to find a seemingly quiet exit from months of political disarray.

Given the harsh and unanimous international condemnation that met the June 28  coup, this turn of events should be counted as a great victory for Roberto Micheletti, the de facto president of the country since then. Unfortunately, the plaudits end there. This is not a win for Honduras, and it's certainly no shining day for democracy.

The problem is not that countries recognized the election. Recognizing it is better than not recognizing it, which would have been the surest way to prolong this sorry episode. The real problem is that the apparent success of the election lets the orchestrators of the coup get away scot-free after casually kicking out an elected official. It is one thing to convince the international community to turn a blind eye to a crass deposition of a legitimate president; it is quite another to achieve that without paying any price whatsoever for it. The coup team has now accomplished both. And so the shortcomings of the Honduras's rotten political system have simply been crystallized.

Instead, the elusive prize of international legitimacy for the new Honduran government should have been conferred after a meaningful process of national dialogue -- a process including the zelayistas (and Zelaya himself). Even better, international favor could have been conditioned on an effort to rethink a surreal constitution that leaves the country vulnerable to future democratic breakdowns. Or perhaps a serious introspection among the Honduran elite about the introduction of social reforms of the sort that are desperately needed in a country afflicted by the pervasive poverty and obscene inequalities that make Zelaya-style populism an irresistible temptation. Lobo paid lip service to these lofty goals upon proclaiming his victory, but now that the threat of international isolation has been removed, it's unlikely that anything will come of it.

The Honduran political elite are reading this outcome as an unconditional victory and, above all, as a license to return to politics as usual, as though nothing had happened. That will mean a return to the usual tooth-and-nail fight between factions of the well-heeled oligarchy -- each cheered on by segments of the impoverished populace -- for the spoils of a weak state. With such a political style and such a lack of political leadership -- both made obvious in this episode -- it is no wonder that Honduras is dead last on the fight against corruption in Central America, according to the figures just released by Transparency International.

To be sure, this is no vindication of Zelaya, an irresponsible politician who is as much a part and a product of the Honduran elite as anyone. The ousted president played his hand poorly: His unsurpassed ability to ramble confirmed all the prejudices about him, and his racking up miles in Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's plane proved a dead-end route to regaining the presidency. Zelaya will go down in history as the single biggest culprit in his own coup. He was right about one thing (revising the Honduran constitution) but for the wrong reasons (he wanted to tamper with term limits and re-election clauses). He doesn't have a political future other than as a cause célèbre at all the future jamborees organized by Chávez and his Bolivarian colleagues.

But Chávez is also a loser here. The Venezuelan president was quickly cut out of the picture by all the relevant actors -- including Zelaya -- months ago; he won't have a friend in Tegucigalpa now that Lobo has been elected. It is even a defeat of sorts for Brazil, which was thrown into the center of the crisis by Zelaya's decision to seek shelter at the Brazilian Embassy and then missed the chance to deploy regional influence and craft an adequate political settlement.

And it is a resounding defeat for the Organization of American States (OAS), which is left in tatters, incapable of protecting the lofty goals of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and equally unable to bridge not just the traditional divide between the hemisphere's North and South but now also the ideological rift that is threatening to split Latin America between left and right. In particular, the fact that the United States and Brazil are publicly at odds over the recognition of the Honduran election (Brasilia is refusing to recognize the results) is likely to accelerate a process through which Brazil abandons the OAS in favor of other regional outfits, such as the Union of South American Nations, where it can wield power more freely.

Finally, it is a gaping failure for U.S. diplomacy, which shifted from indignation with the June 28 coup to indifference, to confusion, and finally to acquiescence -- all in less than five months. The crisis laid bare the State Department and the White House's completely incoherent approach toward Latin America. The United States should be particularly embarrassed about the collapse of the purported agreement between Micheletti and Zelaya, heralded as a diplomatic triumph by everyone from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sen. John Kerry. Before the champagne stopped fizzing, the big triumph morphed into a big debacle, when it became clear that the Honduran Congress had no intention of reversing the coup by reinstating Zelaya before the election. Either the U.S. diplomats announced the accord believing that the Honduran Congress was ready to reinstate Zelaya (in which case they were taken for a ride by the Honduran political elite), or they announced it knowing full well that the votes were not there. In the former hypothesis, they behaved with remarkable incompetence; in the latter, with remarkable cynicism. In both cases, Washington's credibility as an interlocutor of future political crises in the region is damaged.

And maybe that's exactly what the State Department wants: to steer clear of disputes in Latin America, a minor headache in the big scheme of things. But a lot of people, in Latin America and beyond, will take note. While there's no clear risk of a Honduras-style coup cropping up anytime soon, Micheletti's ability to make Foggy Bottom dance to his own tune will nevertheless be recorded and remembered by other oligarchies in the region. Moreover, Washington's inability to impose an adequate political solution to a petty power struggle in Honduras raises legitimate questions about America's diplomatic prowess. Not only that, if Washington couldn't handle Honduras, how will it tackle the Middle East?

Alas, there's not a lot to gloat about in the outcome of this hapless episode. Micheletti and Lobo are simply the last men standing on a barren landscape. Their victory is a hollow one. And make no mistake: It is no victory for democracy.



Pakistan's Failing War on Terror

Pakistan needs to rethink its strategy for defeating jihadi groups -- not just throw more troops at the problem.

Despite the shrill public discussion of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, the most important front of the war in South Asia continues to be Pakistan, which the world's most dangerous jihadists call home. On this issue, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that U.S. President Barack Obama's private deliberations on strategy have focused on Pakistan, coupling offers of increased military and economic assistance with warnings that Islamabad must abandon its habit of supporting Islamist proxy forces. The bad news is that al Qaeda's radical pan-Islamic ideology is infecting militants long-supported by the Pakistani state, and Pakistan's security services have not caught up with the problem.

Pakistan deserves credit for its recent offensive against tribal militants in Swat and Waziristan, but the Pakistani Army's campaign is far from adequate. Pakistan has retained its long-standing balancing strategy of differentiating between pro- and anti-Pakistan militants, regardless of their collaboration with al Qaeda or support for violence against NATO troops in Afghanistan. This balancing strategy is coherent from a Pakistani perspective -- it is self-interested, not evil -- but it creates real problems for the NATO effort in Afghanistan and increases the chance of terrorism in the West. In the long run, it spells trouble for Pakistan as well.

Pakistan's balancing strategy is evident nationwide, but it is particularly clear in Waziristan. When the Pakistani Army invaded Waziristan, it cut a deal with two Waziri tribal commanders, Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir, in order to limit the risk to its supply lines while targeting the most virulent militants in the region: tribal elements loyal to Hakimullah Mehsud (the successor to Baitullah Mehsud, who before his assassination in August was the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban coalition) and their Uzbek allies. On one level, this deal is logical. Both Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir have a history of animosity (see here and here for more) toward the Hakimullah Mehsud faction, and both have cooperated previously with Pakistani security forces. In 2007, Maulvi Nazir even went to war against the Mehsuds' Uzbek allies. Moreover, the Mehsud faction is closely tied to al Qaeda and under previous leadership even claimed credit for a plot against the Barcelona subway.

By cutting a deal with the Waziri tribes, Pakistan smoothed its operation against the most dangerous threat. That counts as sound operational logic. So, what is the problem?

The problem is that both Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir still support anti-NATO violence in Afghanistan and have long-standing relationships with pro-al Qaeda groups. They are not the South Asian version of the Sons of Iraq (the Iraqi insurgents who supported U.S. efforts to find and crush al Qaeda in Iraq). Indeed, it was only April 2009 when Maulvi Nazir appeared in an al Qaeda-produced As-Sahab video denouncing the United States and Pakistan, and swearing to support Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.

The intensity of Pakistan's recent offensive in Waziristan is laudable, and it's certainly an improvement from previous campaigns in the region. But the increased intensity reflects an operational shift rather than a strategic one.

The balancing strategy is inadequate from a Western perspective, but it will slowly fail Pakistan as well. While Pakistan has negotiated among militias to gain operational advantage over its most worrisome enemies, al Qaeda has extended its ideological and political influence over larger segments of the Pakistani militant milieu. For Pakistan, the most worrisome development is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) coalition between Pashtun tribal groups and Punjabi militias, including Sipah-i Sahaba, Laskkar-e-Janghvi, and Jaish-i-Mohammed.

The Pashtun and Punjabi groups were never enemies, but had little reason to collaborate -- tribal militias fought mainly for autonomy, Punjabi groups pursued narrow sectarian and religious agendas, and Kashmiri groups targeted India. But the rash of bombings in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Lahore -- many claimed by the TTP leadership in far-away Waziristan -- indicate that the Punjabi groups have shifted their focus to more political targets, like cricket teams, Army headquarters, and police-training facilities. Militants that used to avoid confrontation with the Pakistani state are now facilitating bombings in Pakistan's Punjab heartland. While Pakistan maneuvers for operational advantage, the strategic playing field is shifting against it.

The rationale for the origin and persistence of Pakistan's balancing strategy is no secret: Jihadi militant groups are useful foils against India. (When your archenemy is four times as big as you and has six times as many people, you take help where you can get it.) But those useful-to-Pakistan jihadi militant groups justify their anti-Indian stance on ideological grounds that also demand opposition to the NATO force in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has used that opening to argue that Pakistan's facilitation of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan makes the Pakistani state and its Army an infidel force attacking true Muslims.

Or, as al Qaeda ideologue Abu Yahya al-Libi put it, "Pakistan has now become a stronghold in the nonbeliever alliance that is waging war on the religion of Islam. Her army, intelligence agencies, and police have now become a spearhead in the direct collaboration of tearing apart the connective tissues of the Islamic Nation ... If these people ... do not deserve combat to eliminate their overwhelming evil and rampant corruption in this life and in religion, who then, deserves it?"

Despite Libi's rhetoric, Pakistan is not on the verge of collapse. The problem is that Pakistan's continued pursuit of the same balancing strategy -- albeit one that pursues anti-Pakistan militants with greater intensity -- will continue to leave space for Afghan-focused militants to plan and train inside Pakistan. That will make successfully concluding the war in Afghanistan much more difficult. Moreover, leaving space for Afghan-focused militants almost certainly means leaving space for al Qaeda.

The Pakistani Army still seems to think it can manipulate the militant groups in its midst. Some in the Army may argue that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would bolster Pakistani security because the Pakistani government will no longer be complicit with a Western occupation in Afghanistan, thus obviating al Qaeda's argument for attacking it. After all, they will argue, Pakistan has managed instability in Afghanistan before, but did not suffer terrorist attacks in downtown Islamabad until the United States showed up across the border.

That mindset is outdated. Al Qaeda is the wild card because of its uncanny ability to co-opt other militant groups, either wholesale or piecemeal. The power that comes from the publicity and notoriety al Qaeda offers cannot be wished away and has proven infectious for Pakistan's domestic jihadi groups.

Al Qaeda's success in co-opting Pakistani militants has changed the face of the international jihadi threat. Although al Qaeda's own operational capacity to conduct attacks is probably more constrained today than it was several years ago, that does not much matter if Pakistani collaborators such as Sipah-i Sahaba are attacking targets in Lahore while Lashkar-e-Taiba and Ilyas Kashmiri are linked to plotters in Denver and Chicago.

The immediate problem for the United States is that an Afghanistan strategy that does not improve Pakistani performance against its domestic militants will not dramatically mitigate the security threat to the United States from al Qaeda or its allies. But the longer-term issues are worse: increased instability in Pakistan, a festering Afghanistan, and more tension between Pakistan and India.

Even the strongest advocates of Obama's new strategy understand it is a calculated risk. But Obama is right to try to reassure and cajole Pakistan into action. One rationale for putting more U.S. troops in Afghanistan is to bolster Pakistani will, and perhaps a demonstrated commitment to Afghanistan will shake up deliberations in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani equivalent of the Pentagon. Despite the obvious costs, this is an experiment worth trying because the consequences of failure in Pakistan are so disturbing.

When it comes to Western security, the impact of the new U.S. Afghanistan strategy on deliberations in Islamabad and Rawalpindi is more important than its effects on the ground in Kabul or Kandahar. To judge whether it has succeeded, Washington should watch for a strategic shift in Pakistani policy toward its militants, not just greater force employed in the service of an old, failing strategy.