Pakistan’s Ominous Future

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Pakistan’s Ominous Future

Musharraf’s decline and fall leaves a dangerous void in this nuclear-armed Muslim country and brings relations with the U.S. to a crisis point.
From the November 2008 Trumpet Print Edition

Pakistanis celebrated, but their nation remains on the edge of an abyss.

Eighty-three percent of them wanted Pervez Musharraf gone. On August 18 he obliged them by resigning from the presidency. It was a final, decisive step in a months-long process that has taken the nation from being a wobbly ally in America’s “war on terror” to facing an uncertain and possibly catastrophic future.

Musharraf’s support for the United States never went over well among his people. Facing intense public disapproval in the world’s second-most-populous Muslim country, he allowed the U.S. to conduct military operations and air strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and provided intelligence and operational assistance. For his efforts, the U.S. looked past his warts—and rewarded his country with billions of dollars.

From an American perspective, Musharraf wasn’t without his problems. His efforts to confront extremists were halfhearted; the military over which he long ruled harbors Islamist elements; he pardoned Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan for selling sensitive nuclear secrets to nations such as Iran. But at least he wasn’t openly acting in direct contradiction to U.S. interests.

At some point last year, however, key American officials began to complain about the lack of democracy in Pakistan. They decided that it was time for Musharraf—with his military credentials and anti-democratic habits—to go. “Washington, keen to burnish its credentials as a harbinger of global democracy, had set its key ally in the ‘war on terror’ an almost impossible task last year: to step down as army chief, hold free and fair elections and to remain in power,” the Telegraph said (August 18).

That is a horrible mistake, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote at the time. “American leaders are telling Musharraf to take off his military uniform and give real freedom to that country. However, the military is the only institution that gives stability to that extremely divided country! This is another example of how little our leaders know about Pakistan” (January 2008).

Mr. Flurry compared the situation to how the U.S. abandoned the shah of Iran in the late 1970s and paved the way for Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow him. “America’s ignorance and weakness helped to push Iran into the arms of radical Islam. It could very well do the same to Pakistan—unless we learn from our history with Iran,” he wrote. “We can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. If we do, it will become a nightmare for the whole world!”

American pressure continued. Musharraf caved, and Pakistanis seized their opportunity. In elections on February 18, they dealt a deadly blow to Musharraf with his billions in American money, empowering a collection of opposition parties that formed a coalition government. The alliance with Washington—which had only existed because of an autocratic military leader’s willingness to defy the public—was dealt a deadly blow. The new government quickly made clear its disdain for Musharraf’s dealings with Washington. The president’s role was reduced to nothing; finally he was threatened with impeachment and forced from office.

Now, we are seeing just how prescient Mr. Flurry’s statements were.

A New President’s Challenges

Pakistan’s new president, sworn in on September 9, is Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. To say that his reign will be a rocky one is to put it mildly.

A highly controversial figure for his tainted past (spending 1 ½ years in jail on corruption charges) and lack of governing experience, the new president faces political resistance from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (pml-n) withdrew from the coalition government just days after Musharraf’s forced resignation, accusing Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (ppp) of trashing a promise to reinstate judges that Musharraf had ousted. Clearly, a common dislike of Musharraf was the only thing holding the fragile coalition together.

A crumpled government is the last thing troubled Pakistan needs right now.

The collapse of this five-month-old administration did more than just intensify the country’s perennial political crisis. With the pml-n now sitting on the opposition benches, the government will find itself all the more enfeebled in its fight against a worsening Islamist insurgency. Sharif’s party had been pushing for negotiated settlements with militants, and it controls the provincial government of Punjab, the country’s most populous province. As the Far Eastern Economic Review commented, the pml-n “will now aim to check the political moves of the ppp government in the center and in the provinces” (September 5).

Meanwhile, the Taliban is getting bolder, claiming responsibility for a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan. In two weeks in August, several suicide bombings killed more than 100 people. An August 21 suicide attack on Pakistan’s biggest weapons factory, killing at least 67 people and wounding more than 200, was one of the most violent incidents in the country’s history. On September 20, the biggest terrorist bomb ever in Pakistan exploded in Islamabad, killing 53 people—including two U.S. Defense Department employees and the Czech ambassador—and wounding more than 250. A suicide bomber rammed a truck containing the 1,300-pound bomb into the security gates of the Marriott Hotel, leaving a 24-foot crater and destroying the entire front section of the hotel.

While Zardari is under increasing pressure from the U.S. to crack down on Islamist insurgents, he risks further turning public opinion against the state and its use of force against the Taliban. Offensives by Pakistani security forces in the Swat valley of the Northwest Frontier Province in August and September, for example, displaced hundreds of thousands, stirring up greater resistance to Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S.

Then there is the army. If Zardari pushes it too much, he might face a revolt. Pakistan’s army and especially its intelligence agency have long been infiltrated by Islamist sympathizers. Thus, even with 110,000 troops deployed in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, “the Pakistani Army remains unable or unwilling to counter effectively the resurgent Taliban,” said the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Strategic Survey 2008, September 18).

At the same time, the new president must deal with a growing economic crisis in his country and the domestic dissatisfaction that creates. Inflation is at over 25 percent, foreign exchange reserves are dwindling and industry is grinding to a halt. The economy is in virtual meltdown. “Proverbially listed as a failing state, this precariously poised country could now be in a downward spiral towards becoming a failed state” (bbc News, September 18).

Meanwhile, tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan are reaching a crisis point.

America’s Dilemma

In our May issue, we drew attention to the fact that the alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan was “in serious jeopardy.” Increasingly, we are seeing that statement borne out.

Pakistan hosts Taliban training camps and lines of supply to terrorists in Afghanistan. The success of allied efforts in Afghanistan depends in large measure on the U.S.’s ability to seal that nation’s border with Pakistan. As long as the Afghani Taliban can find sanctuary and support in Pakistan, efforts to knock it out will come up short. The Taliban will live to fight another day.

This is the last thing the U.S. and allied forces need in an area they had at one time considered all but won. Afghanistan is quickly becoming an even greater problem than Iraq. And the destabilization within Pakistan’s government bears no small part of the blame.

Pakistan has always dragged its feet cooperating with Washington in taking action against al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. But when it came to power in March, the nation’s new government was even less helpful, largely taking the approach of appeasement toward the Taliban, making peace deals in return for temporary reprieves and political capital. This only strengthened the Taliban both within Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan—where coalition forces are feeling the effects.

Although the U.S. Special Operations Command has reportedly conducted operations on Pakistani soil for years, the White House has recently chosen to make public that it is doing so without Pakistani permission. When the news became public, the flames of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan roared hotter than ever.

Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani responded with a strongly worded statement September 10: “No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside of Pakistan.” The following day, a Pakistani military spokesman said the army was under instructions to treat U.S. troops as enemy invaders and to fire on them.

Zardari is finding it difficult to stay on the tightrope between cooperating with the U.S. and maintaining public support among a population sympathetic to the Taliban. If he stands up to Washington too much, he risks halting the flow of billions of dollars of aid that has entered the country in the years since Musharraf backed the U.S. after September 11. If he cooperates too much, it is politically dangerous for him, in a country where the U.S.-led fight against Islamist extremists is deeply unpopular among the public.

The situation has put Pakistan and the United States on what Stratfor calls “a collision course.” The Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan has grown great enough that the U.S. can no longer afford to ignore their supply lines from and base camps in Pakistan. But sympathy for the Taliban is strong within Pakistan—including within the army—and thus, any attacks against it are politically very difficult for Islamabad. “This moment was bound to come,” Stratfor wrote. “The United States could not manage Afghanistan so long as the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan. The Pakistanis were not going to fight a war in Pakistan to solve the American problem. So we are now down to the final crisis of the war that began seven years ago. … Afghanistan is coming apart. The key to Afghanistan is Pakistan. Pakistan is unable, by itself, to deal with the Taliban. The United States has little choice but to abandon Afghanistan or go into Pakistan. Thus the crisis” (September 12).

Just as Zardari faces conflicting challenges, so does the United States.

U.S. military actions within Pakistan could exacerbate the already deteriorating political, security and economic situation within that country. This in turn would only provide further fertile ground for Islamists to take root and gain power within Pakistan. America, it appears, has no good options.

What Next?

Yes, the Pakistan that Musharraf left behind is a mess.

And the more fragmented, disunited and gridlocked the government becomes, the greater is the extremists’ opportunity to wax strong. Yet that is exactly what the post-Musharraf government is: a political tangle of competing parliamentarians, judges and military men.

The decline and fall of the Musharraf government was accompanied by and gave rise to the increasingly clamorous and powerful forces of democracy and Islamism—a volatile mix made worse by runaway inflation and other economic problems.

“As a result, for the first time in the history of the country the army is no longer in a position to step in and impose order as before,” Stratfor wrote. “Recognizing that any attempt to impose order military style to a growing crisis of governance would only further destabilize the country, the army’s new leadership has put its weight behind the civilian government. But since Pakistani civilian institutions historically have never really functioned properly, serious doubts about the viability of the newly democratic Pakistan arise” (August 19).

“The most likely possible dangers are these,” wrote Frederick W. Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon in the New York Times: “a complete collapse of Pakistani government rule that allows an extreme Islamist movement to fill the vacuum; a total loss of federal control over outlying provinces, which splinter along ethnic and tribal lines; or a struggle within the Pakistani military in which the minority sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda try to establish Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism” (Nov. 18, 2007).

These are exactly the sorts of nightmares that Musharraf, while he maintained control of the military, was able to hold at bay. At that time, the White House could make its requests known with a single phone call to a sympathetic and powerful ear. No longer.

“Almost every day the U.S. seems to learn something new about the limits to its capacity as the world’s one remaining superpower,” the Middle East Times wrote (August 14).

America has itself to blame for its loss of influence in this volatile situation. As Mr. Flurry wrote in January, “America’s problem is even worse than a weak will. We even help push our allies into the hands of radical Islam. That is a dangerous kind of ignorance.

“We helped get rid of Iran’s ‘corrupt’ shah in 1979. He was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini, who began state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. Are we about to see another ayatollah rise to power? This time in nuclear Pakistan? And will America be mostly to blame?”

Meanwhile, the implications for the U.S. in its war on terror are severe. Half a century ago, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote that America would increasingly find itself in a position where it had no good option for victory. In 1961, referring to the Bay of Pigs debacle, he wrote: “[U]nless or until the United States as a whole repents and returns to what has become a hollow slogan on its dollars: ‘In God we trust,’ the United States of America has won its last war!

“I said that when we failed to win in Korea! … I say it again now that the United States government endorsed this Cuban fiasco—its president gave the ‘go ahead’—and God, the God America has deserted, gave it its most humiliating defeat! What does the Cuban debacle mean?

“It means, Mr. and Mrs. United States, that the handwriting is on your wall!” (Plain Truth, October 1961).

Because of disobedience to God, America has been cursed by a loss of national will (Leviticus 26:19). The jam it finds itself in in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a result of that loss of will.

For more on what is prophesied to befall the U.S., request Mr. Armstrong’s book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.