Things are iffy in Pakistan, with the new civilian coalition getting shakier and the future of Pakistan uncertain after the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, the military president who'd seized power in 1999. The country's leading journalist, Ahmed Rashid, is predicting greater instability in the immediate future, and a Taliban-linked bomb killed dozens in the northwest. So yesterday I went to see Husain Haqqani, the ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, who spoke at a packed noontime meeting of the New America Foundation.
Haqqani is a friend, who I got to know during research for my book, Devil's Game and in reading his wonderful book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Last year, when he was chairman of the international relations department at Boston University, he invited me to Boston to speak about political Islam.
Yesterday Haqqani delivered an erudite, balanced, optimistic report on Pakistan so far, under the civilian government. Its earlier military rulers, he said -- including Ayub Khan in the 1950s, Zia ul-Haq from 1977-1988, and Musharraf -- provided on an "illusion of stability." The task now is develop government and civil society institutions to create true stability. "The parties have to learn how to work things out," he said. "And they are learning."
The problems are huge, and there are many unanswered questions: Can the parties hold the government together? Who will the next president? How much power will the president have? Who will control the military and the often rogue ISI, Pakstan's military intelligence unit that has close ties to the Taliban? In the Q&A, Haqqani tried to answer all of these.
In regard to controlling the army and the ISI, he said that Pakistan's "praetorian tradition" won't change overnight, and he predicted a long-term struggle over control of the armed forces. "It's not going to happen overnight," he said. An earlier effort to bring the ISI under the control of the interior ministry was flawed, but eventually the office of the prime minister will assume full control of Pakistan's national security apparatus and the system will be "reconfigured" to deprive the president of many powers, he said.
The biggest problem Pakistan may face is not from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but pressure from the United States to crack down on those groups faster than might be reasonably possible. Haqqani was strongly opposed to unilateral US strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan, which he said would be "provocative," cause much "collateral damage," and "do not serve any purpose." (Are you listening, Senator Obama?) Gradually, he said, Islamabad will seek to reassert control over the lawless Northwest Frontier Provinces, where the Taliban and AQ are hunkered down. But even there, said Haqqani, public support for the radicals is weak, and the religious parties that ran in the recent elections were "trounced." (He wrylt noted that it was the United States itself, in the 1980s, that built up jihadist momentum in that part of Pakistan, during the war against the USSR in Afghanistan.) What will make the situation better, he said, are improved services and economic growth.
He urged patience on the United States, saying that "democracy has to run its course." The American attitude is not exactly patient. Too often Washington seems to want instant democracy (just add cruise missiles)--my words, not Haqqani's.
Above all, the United States needs to butt out. The very worst option would be for the Pakistani army to jump back into politics by seizing control if the civilian coalition falters. The thing is, it's not likely that the military would act without American support, so the Bush administration ought to make it quite clear that it won't tolerate any more coups d'etat in Pakistan.