I hosted a poker game at my house last Friday. It was nothing too intense, just a low-stakes game between friends, but I managed to lose - very quickly. I am not much of a poker player, you see, and tend to play out fast because I have a hard time leaving chips in the pot. Right in front of me, I can see all that I have invested in a particular hand, and I just can't help chasing it with more, until the final card turns and my losses, now greatly amplified, are laid bare.
I bring up my deficiencies at cards because they strike me as a perfect metaphor (which I promise I won't torture for very long) for the current U.S. conundrum in Pakistan. Over the weekend, General Musharraf abandoned all pretense of constitutional restraint and declared a state of emergency - his detractors are calling it martial law - supposedly in response to a "visible ascendancy in the activities of extremists and incidents of terrorist attacks" and the fact that "some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive and
legislature in the fight against terrorism and extremism." The full text of the proclamation contains a long justificatory preamble, but its crux is expressed in a beautifully terse final sentence: "I hereby order and proclaim that the constitution of the Islamic republic of Pakistan shall remain in abeyance."
As the editorial board of the Washington Post has pointed out, the bet that Washington has placed on Musharraf - that he could prove both a reliable ally in the battle against the Taliban and an agent of democratic reform - a bet that Washington has continued to chase with each dissappointing turn of the cards, has finally turned sour, and America has left a lot of cash, credibility and political capital on the table.
Much of the intial comment on the state of emercency and the U.S. reaction has focused on tut-tutting the fact that, once again, support of a third-world strongman has blown up in America's face. That's all fine, I suppose, though the foreign policy community and commentariat (myself included) was far too late in calling attention to the problems with U.S. policy toward Pakistan, and even now I haven't seen very much suggested by way of a credible alternative path, so all the righteousness rings a tad hollow. That is to say, much as I enjoy bashing Administration foreign policy, the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is too complex, and our problems therein too intractable, to waste time pointing fingers. We've lost the bet. The question is, what now?
The U.S. response (echoing much of the Western world, or is it the other way around?) has been fairly tepid thus far. The Administration made a point of letting the U.S. press know in the days before the crisis erupted that it had specifically warned Musharraf against instituting emergency rule, so one would imagine that such direct flouting of Washington's will would have serious consequences. And yet, knowledgable sources seem to feel that the U.S. will not significantly interrupt aid to Pakistan (at least not military aid, which is the only kind that might matter to a military government), and aside from international hand-wringing, Musharraf seems unlikely to face much in the way of serious external pressure to reverse course. He seems to be making the most of the situation, arresting political opponents, sending troops to crush dissent in the streets, and taking whatever steps he deems necessary to eliminate immediate threats to his rule.
The problem for the United States, of course (apart from the ethical dilemma of supporting an un-democratic leader which, if you'll pardon my cynicism, I think we've gotten over by now) is that this can't last. Musharraf, by most counts, has lost most of his support outside of the military, and as the Shah demonstrated long ago in Iran, that is not a viable way to rule a state. Even if America's only concern in Pakistan were stability (and, much as it pains me to say it, it is our principal concern at the moment) we would be well-advised to attempt to engineer a course correction and force Musharraf to relent.
We must, first off, be honest about what we can achieve.
The power of the Pakistani military is such that Musharraf, or whoever heads the army in the future, must have some place in civilian politics, else it will simply take control. First off, the United States ought to make it clear that we are not going to engineer the general's ouster, but neither will we tolerate a lenghthy continuation of the current state of affairs. We should encourage Musharraf to doff his uniform, allow non-rigged elections to proceed as currently scheduled, and re-instate the Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The quid pro quo ought to be that a re-constituted Supreme Court ratify Musharraf's election (of course, at this point such a step might be a bit too obvious to everyone involved to be taken seriously, but it's a way forward). Musharraf has made his point - he can crush his opponents if he so chooses - so perhaps he can be persuaded to back off.
I cannot help but think, though, that all this is a pipe dream. Arif Rafiq has a somewhat more sobering and, I am sorry to say, realistic assessment of what will likely happen: America will wring its hands and hope against hope that the General changes his mind, and Musharraf, realizing that he has passed the point of no return, won't. Rafiq mentions the option of allowing Musharraf a safe exit from Pakistani politics (a nice farm house on a vinyard in the Willamette Valley perhaps?); but, to be frank, my read is that if Musharraf wanted that he would have arranged for it now, rather than sending soldiers into the streets. If the General will not budge from his current stance, the question of withdrawing aid and dealing with a hostile, autocratic, nuclear Pakistan that plays tacit host to al Qaeda must be considered. I am not yet ready to actively counsel such steps, but the United States is fast running out of options.