Ten days after the Pakistani elections, the geopolitical consequences of President Pervez Musharraf's defeat are beginning to come into focus. And they are grim.
By any measure, Pakistan is a dysfunctional state. At least 25 percent of its 160 million people live in abject poverty. A third of Pakistanis suffer from illiteracy. The only prospering school system in the country is the Islamist system, where millions of children are indoctrinated by preachers who share the world views, religious beliefs and political goals of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
As to that, with popular backing, the Taliban is currently fighting to extend its control over Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. It has controlled North and South Waziristan since 2005. It is now asserting its control over the Kurran, Kyber, Mohmand, Orakzai and Bajaur agencies and much of the Swat Valley. This control, together with the Taliban and al-Qaida's territorial gains in eastern Afghanistan over the past year, are enabling the two Islamist organizations to intensify their insurgency in Afghanistan and to increase their popularity in Pakistan.
In a report this week, Asia Time's Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad wrote that with their territorial gains on both sides of the border, the Taliban and al-Qaida intend to create a strategic corridor from western Pakistan to Kabul and cut off NATO forces' supply lines from Pakistan. Those supply lines were already attacked in January.
Shahzad reported that the Pakistani military and NATO forces in Afghanistan are gearing up to preempt the Taliban-al-Qaida offensive, scheduled for April, with an offensive of their own in March. But he notes that the election results in Pakistan could prevent such an offensive from taking place.
Pakistan's elections took place against the backdrop of Musharraf's crackdown against the judiciary and the press, and former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto's December 27 assassination. They crowned as kingmaker Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardawi, who succeeded her as head of the Pakistan People's Party. The PPP, which won the most parliamentary seats in the elections, needs Bhutto's former political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to form a governing coalition in parliament. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League came in second in the elections.
Campaign pledges by both the PPP and the PML centered on a commitment to return Pakistan to civilian rule, overturn Musharraf's pre-election constitutional amendments against the judiciary and curb military control over foreign policy. But what most unifies them is their commitment to reach an accommodation with the Taliban. In a post-election media appearance, Zardawi extended an olive branch to the Taliban and al-Qaida stating, "We will have a dialogue with those who are up in the mountains and those who are not in parliament."
Sharif has been even more explicit. His campaign was supported by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and the architect of its nuclear proliferation activities, which extended support to the North Korean, Iranian and Libyan nuclear programs.
Sharif supports the institution of Shari'a law. Since the elections, Sharif has courted the Islamist parties, and he has been outspoken in his insistence that the next Pakistani government end Musharraf's cooperation with the US-led campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
After meeting Monday with US Ambassador Anne Patterson, Sharif held a joint press conference with Qazi Hussain Ahmad, whose Islamist party Jamaat i-Islami boycotted the elections. Sitting next to the overt Taliban supporter, Sharif said, "So far the war on terrorism has not been clearly defined to make it acceptable for everyone and we would like that this war should not be fought with the gun alone and the option of dialogue should also be used."
Truth be told, Pakistan's fight "with the gun" against the Taliban and al-Qaida has not been particularly hard fought. What it has been is wracked with corruption and defeatism. Since 2001, the US has provided Pakistan with $5.4 billion in military assistance. This week the Guardian reported that US officials believe that some 70% of that money has been misspent. The Indian government has repeatedly complained that Pakistan is diverting the funds, which were supposed to be used to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, to purchase weapons systems such as the F-16s that have been deployed along the Indian border.
The Pakistani elections results place the US in a position where it has no empowered allies in the country with which to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. It is a clear defeat for US policy. And this is not surprising.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, America's overarching policy towards the Islamic world has been clear enough. The US sought to empower forces opposed to the jihad, and to fight with them against the jihadists. The policy itself is correct. But it has been poorly implemented.
In Pakistan, the US placed all of its eggs in Musharraf's basket after September 11 and expected that faced with an outraged superpower, he would share America's interest in destroying the Taliban. But this is not what happened.
Musharraf's policies were always determined by his interest in retaining his grip on power. And while the US never made a credible threat to his grip on power, the jihadists and the non-Islamist political forces opposed to his military dictatorship did. And so, rather than combat the jihadists, he sought to appease them. And rather than work with democrats, he repressed them.
In his bid to accommodate the jihadists, Musharraf rejected US requests to interrogate Khan about his nuclear proliferation activities. So, too, Musharraf rejected repeated US requests to deploy its forces inside of Pakistan. He rejected US offers to train Pakistani counterterror units. He refused to purge jihadists from the ranks of the Pakistani army or the Inter-Service Intelligence organization that itself is the founder of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Rather than defeat the Taliban, Musharraf allowed the Pakistani military to be humiliated and signed "peace accords" with the Taliban in North and South Waziristan effectively ceding sovereignty over the areas to the jihadist group. With no competent counter-insurgency plan in place in the areas, the local populations under Taliban rule largely maintained their traditional, tribal support for the group.
Although Pakistan's nuclear arsenal no doubt informed much of the US's decision to handle Musharraf with kid gloves, the fact is that the US's inability to properly identify and support social forces and individuals in Pakistan that share its desire to defeat the jihadists has been the rule rather than the exception in its post-September 11 treatment of the Islamic world in general. The US's dealings with the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia are clear examples of the same misguided American embrace of leaders who do not oppose the jihadists.
THE MOST striking example of this post-September 11 American penchant for choosing its allies unwisely is the Bush administration's embrace of Fatah in the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian example stands out because while the US may have strategic interests in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that as in Pakistan make it leery of muddying the political waters with liberalism too aggressively, no such interests exist in the PA. The Palestinians do not have oil, a large, US-trained army, or nuclear bombs to threaten US interests with. And in Israel, the US has a strong, loyal, democratic ally with the means to combat Palestinian jihadists. And yet, rather than turn its back on Fatah, the US has lavishly supported it politically and financially, and has trained Fatah militias while opposing any Israeli military plan to defeat Fatah on the military or politi
cal battlefields. And like the US's support for Musharraf, the US's support for Fatah has come back to haunt it and will continue to haunt it in the future.
Just as the Clinton administration upheld Yasser Arafat even as he built his terror armies while negotiating with Israel, so the Bush administration upholds Fatah leader and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as he follows in Arafat's footsteps. Like Arafat, Abbas is a master of double-speak. While waxing poetic about his yearning for peace in his talks with Israelis and Americans, inside the PA he supports terrorists, and in addresses to Arab audiences he explains that he shares the terrorists' strategic goal of destroying Israel.
On Thursday, Jordan's Al-Dustur daily ran an interview with Abbas. There the supposedly moderate Palestinian leader and US ally in the war on terror made clear his support for jihadists and their goal of destroying Israel. Abbas boasted about his refusal at the Annapolis conference last November to accept Israel's Jewish identity. He argued that the only difference he has with Hamas – which he hopes will join Fatah in a unity government – is that he thinks that the use of violence against Israel is counterproductive today. As he put it, "At this present juncture, I am opposed to armed struggle because we cannot succeed in it, but maybe in the future things will be different."
Abbas bragged about his role as a terrorist in the 1960s and about Fatah's role as the founding father of modern terrorism. In his words, "We [Fatah] had the honor of leading the resistance and we taught resistance to everyone, including Hizbullah, who trained in our military camps."
In 2002, President George W. Bush nearly ended US support for Fatah when he essentially ordered the Palestinians to end their support for terror and liberalize their society. His words were met with jubilation not only by Israelis but by many Palestinians who had been suffering under the terrorists' jackboot since Arafat established the PA in 1994. And yet, rather than implement his stated policy and empower those Palestinians who shared his opposition to jihad, Bush turned his back on them, pretended that Abbas was a liberal reformer and embraced him as a US ally.
This month, a remarkable article was published in The Wall Street Journal. Co-authored by Natan Sharansky and Palestinian human rights activist Bassam Eid, the article chided Bush for his insistence on supporting Fatah.
The authors wrote, "Rather than establish a clear link between support for the PA and reform, and openly embrace the genuine Palestinian reformers who are the democratic world's true allies, [Abbas] is promised billions despite having done nothing. With the media entirely under his control, incitement continues and no one raises serious objections. He is, we are told, too 'weak' to take action."
THE SITUATION in Pakistan is grave. And its implications are clear. As the leader of the fight against the forces of global jihad, the US must redouble its efforts to seek out and cultivate the anti-jihadist forces in the Islamic world. Until it does so, rather than win the war, it will continue to stymied by the Musharrafs, Zardawis, Sharifs, Mubarak's and Abbases of the world who promote jihad while speaking of moderation, stability and democracy.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.