Pakistan’s Wildcard

The mysterious Pakistani-Canadian cleric is back, and he’s shaking up the country’s politics.

On March 17, Tahir-ul-Qadri -- the Pakistani cleric who led popular demonstrations that brought Islamabad to a standstill for four days in January -- plans to announce his intentions for the upcoming national elections at another major rally in Rawalpindi. Most American observers have written Qadri off as a flash in the Pakistani pan. They may need to think again. Qadri can still shake up Pakistani politics. In the near term, he remains a wildcard, disruptive in ways that might even tip the balance of power in Pakistan's next government. Over the long run, however, Qadri has the potential to play a far more constructive role in Pakistan's political development. Either way, Washington would do well to pay him closer attention.

It is possible that Qadri will decide to send his party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, into the fray of national elections in May. Building a Pakistani party machine with credible, popular candidates is the work of years, not weeks, so there is a very good chance he wouldn't win any seats. Even so, Qadri-backed politicians might steal just enough votes to spoil the plans of the front-running party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) and shift the makeup of Islamabad's next ruling coalition.

Qadri might play an even more significant and constructive role over the long run by choosing not to contest elections. As an outside voice favoring reform, religious moderation, and better governance, Qadri would offer a glimmer of hope for a future in which Pakistani opposition figures hold their nation's leaders accountable to the nation's constitution and laws. That would represent a genuine, farsighted contribution to the maturation of democracy in Pakistan, the best hope for long-term economic development and stability of the sort that would render Pakistan a far less dangerous and fragile state.

Qadri, a former law professor and acclaimed Islamic scholar, stormed out of his unlikely home base in Toronto, Canada, this past December after having disappeared from the scene for eight years. The media portrayed his out-of-the-blue return to Pakistan and rapid ascendance as mysterious. Who had backed Qadri's massive media blitz? Rumor swirled. Some said it was Washington, again out to influence Pakistani politics. Others saw the hand of the Pakistani military looking to derail the electoral process.

Contrary to many press reports that depicted him as a detached Islamic scholar with little in the way of a political background, Qadri has a decades-long history of dealing with all of Pakistan's top leaders since the 1980s, from Generals Zia and Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Today, Qadri's politics are motivated by deep disillusionment with all of them, military and civilian alike. Such sentiments place him squarely in the mainstream of Pakistani public opinion.

Qadri's movement has found is greatest strength -- and probably most of the cash that fed his impressive media machine -- in the well of popular disgust with Pakistan's status quo of corruption, power outages, and terrible violence. Among Pakistanis there is little stomach for another round of military rule, and none for political intrusion by outside forces like the United States. But everyone, including Pakistan's most powerful civilian and military leaders, admits the state needs to do a far better job at governing. Qadri, like the reform-minded cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, taps into this sentiment.

That said, Qadri too often invokes the need for a democratic revolution to "save the state, not politics." These rants sound a lot like the sort of arguments Pakistan's military has used to justify interference in the political process. For this, Qadri is justly criticized for veering into authoritarian, or at least technocratic, territory. By this point it should be clear that Pakistan has no legitimate alternative to electoral democracy, by way of a messianic cleric or otherwise.

Stripped of the fiery rhetoric, however, the rest of Qadri's argument boils down to the idea that Pakistan should adhere to its own constitutional rules during the upcoming elections. Here the cleric stands on firmer ground. In January, before he left the stage in Islamabad and sent his loyal followers home, he achieved signed promises along those lines from the country's ruling coalition.

Qadri, of course, is not alone in pushing to improve the quality of Pakistan's electoral process. A powerful election commission, headed by the fiercely independent jurist Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, is backed by a team of civil servants who have been toiling away for several years to improve the quality of the nation's voter lists and to implement a process of collecting and counting votes that is immune -- or nearly so -- from the rigging practices that have plagued Pakistan's history. Within the parameters set by their political masters, they appear to have done an impressive job.

Yet major obstacles remain. In February, Qadri raised a legitimate legal challenge against the manner in which some members of the election commission were selected. Rather than ruling on the merits of Qadri's complaint, Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry tossed it out on the flimsiest of all grounds that Qadri -- who holds dual citizenship in Canada -- has no standing to plead before Pakistan's courts. Pakistan's political parties accepted that farce of a ruling for fear that reconstituting the election commission would delay national elections, something they say the country's fragile democracy cannot afford.

Qadri's critiques of the corrupt status quo are more credible than the politicians' rebuttals. Pakistan's leaders seem more eager to perpetuate a failing system than to reform it. Recent moves by President Asif Ali Zardari to cut a deal with Tehran on a gas pipeline project are but the latest examples of fecklessness and time-wasting so pervasive in Pakistan's corridors of power. Even under the best of circumstances, a pipeline would take years to complete, so it will do nothing to solve Pakistan's immediate energy crisis. Still, the president's diplomatic charade permits his ruling party to claim it is taking action, even fighting back against American pressure. Today's pipeline deals will only saddle the next government, likely a weak coalition of parties from today's opposition benches, with fantastic promises that can only distract from Pakistan's real economic and security problems.

Had Qadri returned to Pakistan several years ago, he might have had a realistic chance of turning his own political party into a legitimate contender. And it is all to the good that his demonstrations have neither delayed the national electoral process nor provided any serious opening for the military to reassert a direct role in Pakistan's politics. But Pakistani politics do not end after the election; they merely begin a new round. In that context, Qadri -- along with a variety of other reform-minded Pakistanis -- has the potential to play an increasingly important role. If they can hold their leaders' feet to the fire and use the media megaphone to fight for improved governance no matter who holds the majority, Pakistan will benefit. Along the way, reformers would also build the credibility of their own parties so that Pakistani voters will have better options when they go to the polls the next time around.

For its part, the United States should also lend its voice to constitutional rule in Pakistan without picking sides. Washington has a major stake in Pakistani stability, and at this point the best U.S. officials can hope is that Pakistan makes its way through 2013's leadership transitions without major mishap. After that, if opposition figures such as Qadri can build their movements into permanent features of the Pakistani political process, there may be greater reason for optimism over the long run.

ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Learning Curve

'Never Again' is the wrong lesson to draw from the Iraq war.

The war in Iraq is regarded by most Americans as a costly mistake. This does not mean the experience was without value. Indeed, one can profit from mistakes even more than successes in terms of improved performance. Ten years on, it is worth asking whether we as a nation have done so.

Last year, at the direction of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Staff issued a short but fairly candid compendium of lessons from the Iraq and Afghan wars. Entitled "Decade of War," this paper acknowledged that the United States had failed to understand the environments in which it was operating, employed conventional tactics to fight unconventional wars, and was unable to effectively communicate with local populations. The report contends that these problems were largely overcome in the last five years, but admits that this adaptation took longer than it should have.

This otherwise commendable examination of past failures omits two of the most important. Invading Iraq on the basis of bad information was not exclusively or even primarily a military error, but much of the U.S. intelligence apparatus resides in the Defense Department and is commanded by military officers. Yet only the tiny State Department intelligence unit demurred from the judgment that Saddam had active WMD programs and indeed weapons, neither of which turned out to be true.

Second, this Joint Staff compendium does not examine the fatal mismatch between the scale of initial American commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the scope of its ambitions. Some now argue that initial American objectives were too ambitious, while others insist that the commitment of military manpower and economic assistance was inadequate. But virtually everyone agrees that the Bush administration should have either scaled down the former or upped the latter. In the end, of course, it did both.

Civilian agencies -- to include State, USAID, Treasury, and the CIA -- have not produced a lessons-learned compendium comparable to that issued at Gen. Dempsey's direction. This is unfortunate, for while the Joint Staff paper does cite failures on the civil side, we lack any comparable analysis of such failures from the responsible agencies.

The lesson most Americans seem to have drawn from Iraq is "never fight a land war in Asia." This advice was first given by Douglas MacArthur to President Kennedy in 1961. It was reiterated two years ago by then Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. Another version of this lesson is contained in the Obama administration's official defense guidance, which directs that the United States no longer size its military for large-scale stability operations.

While negative lessons are legitimate and useful, they don't lead to improved performance, since one does not hone skills one does not intend to use. The post-Vietnam "never again" attitude led to a severe atrophy of the U.S. military's counterinsurgency skills and it is quite possible that the U.S. military will go through a similar phase of unlearning over the next several years.

Obviously, the United States should in the future avoid invading large hostile Asian states on the basis of bad information against the advice of major allies and over the objections of most regional governments. History suggests, however, that the more general injunction against land wars in Asia may enjoy a short half-life, as may the determination to steer clear of large-scale stability operations. Kennedy escalated the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam in the years following MacArthur's warning. George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan only a year after promising, in a presidential election debate with Al Gore, not to engage U.S. forces in any more nation-building endeavors -- and he then directed the occupation of Iraq only 18 months later.

The current national aversion to future such engagements is clearly limiting American involvement in Syria's still escalating civil war, much as the hangover from President Clinton's Somalia debacle in 1992 helped delay American intervention in the Bosnia civil war until 1995, by which time that conflict had claimed over 100,000 victims. This is a threshold the Syrian conflict seems likely to cross sometime this year.

More important even than identifying lessons to be learned is adopting enduring remedial measures. "Decade of War" is right to argue that most of the early failures it identifies have been corrected. But many of those fixes have been of a provisional nature, altering institutional behavior and structures in ways not likely or even intended to endure once the immediate need for reform diminishes. As the war in Iraq recedes and that in Afghanistan winds down, there will be a tendency for all our national security agencies to return to business as usual. Should this be allowed to happen, the nation will have missed an opportunity to profit from some very costly mistakes.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images