In his recent memoirs, Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s embattled and probably outgoing president, described a key moment on September 11 2001 in which a senior Bush administration official threatened to “bomb Pakistan back into the stone age” unless Islamabad signed up to the US-led “war on terror”.
Whatever the precise form of words – and Richard Armitage, the US official in question, vigorously denies having said such a thing – Mr Musharraf got the message. Pakistan signed up to the “war on terror”. And George W. Bush – exhibiting a tendency to subsume important bilateral relationships to personal chemistry between heads of state – found a new strongman in whom he could place his trust.
Now that the Musharraf strategy has passed its sell-by date, many policy experts in Washington question whether it was as mistaken to place America’s eggs in Mr Musharraf’s basket as it was for Mr Bush to read a good “soul” behind Vladimir Putin’s poker eyes. Both countries, and particularly Pakistan, are now either less willing or able to co-operate with American interests than they were in 2001.
“Was the Bush administration’s Musharraf policy mistaken?” asks Tezi Schaffer, a former US ambassador to Islamabad who now heads the south Asia wing of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If by that you mean: ‘Does the US more generally see the error of basing its relationship with a country on just one person?’ then the answer is by no means clear.”
Yet, by declaring this week that Mr Musharraf’s impeachment was an “internal” Pakistan matter, the US state department has at least resisted overtly fiddling with Islamabad’s political direction, say observers.
Until recently that temptation proved hard to resist. A year ago the US sponsored the return to Pakistan of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, rather than simply encouraging a more abstract return to democratic rules.
That strategy, which inadvertently helped bring about Bhutto’s assassination last December by identifying her as America’s latest favourite, was swiftly followed by the US misreading the results of the Pakistan elections earlier this year to conclude that a civilian President Musharraf would continue to be a watchdog for US interests. In fact, Mr Musharraf had been stripped of almost all his power. What remained was a lingering reminder of America’s recent shortcomings.
“America, and particularly the Bush administration, has a tendency to see countries such as Pakistan from the top down because we lack the on-the-ground knowledge to take a different approach,” says Michael Krepon, a nuclear expert at the Stimson Institute, which specialises in national security challenges.
Some Pakistani analysts believe the US learnt its lessons from the Iranian revolution in 1979 that followed what was universally seen as Washington’s mistaken policy of sticking to the Shah of Iran through thick and thin. But that parallel is arguably back to front. One reason Mr Musharraf was able to command so much loyalty from Washington was because he played on fears that he was all that stood between Pakistan and an Islamist takeover.
In fact, says Ms Schaffer, Pakistan never faced an Iran-style revolution. The highly fragmented group of Pakistani Islamist parties garnered less than 10 per cent of the vote in the elections earlier this year. “Musharraf played the ‘après moi le déluge‘ to perfection in Washington,” she adds. “And the Bush administration bought it.”
The real test of whether America has learned from the Musharraf episode will come in the aftermath of his expected departure. Whether or not he becomes president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Bhutto, is likely to cement his role as the key power player in Islamabad. The other crucial player, Nawaz Sharif, whom Mr Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup, is not favoured by Washington. Yet Mr Zardari is seen by many Pakistanis as one of the most corrupt figures in its history.
“I have no doubt that Zardari would, if necessary, play on America’s fears of an Islamist takeover and that it would still work,” says a former Bush official who asked for his name to be withheld. “We still don’t have anything like the grasp of Pakistan’s underlying realities that we should have.”
Mr Musharraf, meanwhile, can point to a redeeming feature that was lacking in previous outgoing US strongmen, such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, or indeed the Shah of Iran: he is not a rich man. “Musharraf doesn’t have an estate in Hawaii or a mansion in LA,” says Mr Krepon. “This complicates any potential exile.”
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