Washington is in disarray after Thursday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The United States did not have a Pakistan policy. We only had a Musharraf one. Since Musharraf deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and ended democracy in the 1999 coup, Washington has backed the man who returned the country to dictatorial rule. When the strongman in Islamabad appeared weak, the United States tried to arrange a power-sharing agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto, also a failed leader in her two stints as prime minister. The idea—“like putting two pythons in the same cage” according to a Bush administration official—was an act of desperation or perhaps just folly.
American policymakers always get themselves into trouble when they compromise the principles of the people they lead. Washington’s response to troubling events in Pakistan—as in other places—has been to try to broker even more cynical arrangements, doubling down and making the situation even worse. We are always in a dilemma, and so we continue to put off lasting solutions. This rationale underpins the Bush administration’s policy of supporting Musharraf. Yet as RAND’s Christine Fair noted on Thursday, “Six years into this mess, we’re still saying now is not the right time. There’s always an excuse to defer those things that need to be done.”
What needs to be done at this moment is to withdraw our backing for Musharraf. Of course he continues to do things that are inimical to the interests of the United States and the rest of the international community—he knows we will continue to stand behind him, no matter what. Why should he ever truly cooperate?
As Max Boot has regularly pointed out in this forum, the majority of the Pakistani people are in favor of democracy. It never occurred to the set in Washington that we should just let them run their own country. The longer we stand against their legitimate aspirations, the less likely the responsible center will hold. And one more thing: a political result engineered by the United States—even if one were possible—would lack legitimacy.
Yes, Pakistan has nukes and plenty of terrorists, yet these facts are not arguments for supporting whichever autocrat is in control in Islamabad. If anything, the facts should persuade us to permit an enduring solution as quickly as possible. Pakistan will continue to get worse until Washington allows the country to heal itself. This may be a particularly bad time to stop helping Musharraf, but the moments ahead will even be worse.