The least bad options in Pakistan

…may not be good enough

You can’t blame people for throwing up their hands and saying “there are no good options in Pakistan”. The least bad way forward for Pakistan is to have Musharraf as a civilian president, Benazir Bhutto as the prime minister (or Leading Civilian Politician) and a clean-shaven, ‘friendly to the West, loyal to Musharraf’ General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani as army chief.

The United States helped engineer this outcome: by shoring up Benazir, by preventing Musharraf from declaring martial law and by helping to prevent Nawaz Sharif from throwing in more complications. And underlying India’s silence—deliberate or resigned—was a similar rationale: this is the least bad combination.

It sounds nice in theory. But any number of things can go wrong. First, it’s unlikely, but the Supreme Court may well decide to nullify Musharraf’s election, in which case he is likely to declare martial law. He’s threatened as much, and has asked Benazir to postpone her return until the Court delivers its ruling.

Second, Pakistan’s leaders have a sorry record of finding that the army chief they appointed doesn’t turn out to be exactly what they bargained for. So why should Gen Kayani be different? He’s got to keep the Pakistan Army together. That job is going to be difficult, not least when it is being both attacking and losing to its own citizens in the tribal areas.

Third, how long do you think the worthies that form PML-Q, the current ruling party, will get along with Benazir’s? It’s not merely the conservative vs liberal thing. It’s about the trappings and the spoils of power. Getting the two to agree on everyday matters may be difficult enough, but they will need to agree to back army operations against Islamist radicals and Pashtun tribals?

Fourth, the insurgencies in FATA and to a lesser extent, in Balochistan, may precipitate a crisis. The least bad option, from the Musharraf-Benazir-Kayani perspective, would be to reach an “agreement”, like Musharraf did in the two Waziristans last year. The Americans though, can accept this only at the cost of abandoning the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That’ll only destabilise Afghanistan. The next American president will have to reckon with a dilemma: proceed with the war and destabilise Pakistan, or stand down and let Afghanistan fall to the Taliban, again.

Watchful inaction is likely to serve India’s interests as long as Pakistan’s leaders are preoccupied with consolidating their own hold on power and dealing with the demands of the insurgency on their Western front. Since it’s rather unlikely that the threats to Pakistan’s internal stability have diminished, this is the time to plan for the day when inaction would no longer be possible.