No colours for the revolution in Pakistan

America is ignoring the popular movement against Musharraf to its own disadvantage

PostGlobal’s Amar Bakshi is going around the world, lugging a laptop and a camcorder, to get a sense of how people in different countries view America. If he ever makes it to Pakistan, he’s likely to find a country where anti-Americanism is rife. Pakistanis have genuine reasons to hold a negative opinion of American foreign policy—though not necessarily for the reasons Americans may be inclined to believe. Right now, they have little reason to nurse good feelings towards America, given Washington’s determined refusal to demonstrate the smallest amount of sympathy for democracy and freedom in the ongoing confrontation between the people and the dictator.

As Manjeet Kripalani, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote:

It is vital that the United States recognize this as a legitimate and broad-based secular democracy movement in Pakistan — isn’t this what America wants for the Muslim world?

And Washington would at last be able to expand its friendship, currently restricted to just one Pakistani — Musharraf — to the 160 million other Pakistanis who want to lead a life of dignity in their own country and on the international stage.[CFR/IHT]

US policy towards Pakistan is in rigor mortis. Almost six years after 9/11, the substantial failure of the pact with Gen Musharraf is plain for everyone to see. Osama bin Laden remains at large, the Taliban are back in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the A Q Khan network is believed to be in operation and the one thing the deal was supposed to avoid—severe political instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan—is at hand. Yet, the United States shows no signs of making some deft corrections to its Pakistan policy.

America’s handling of the popular movement against Gen Musharraf’s dictatorship fits a pattern. If it’s not “our son of a bitch” facing a protesting crowds, then you have a “colour revolution”, televised for international audiences. Spokesmen from various US government departments express sympathy for the struggle for democracy. But if it is “our son of a bitch”, then Washington maintains silence in public, and hopes for a palace coup in private. Better that a dictator is replaced by another, than allow the mob on the streets to cause a new regime to be installed. There is some merit in this approach, especially if it can achieved along with a democratic veneer, but it is also one which America will be unable to take credit for. You won’t, for instance, find too many Pakistanis thankful to America for the elections in 1988 that brought Benazir Bhutto to power, would you?

America must show greater sympathy and support for the mass movement against Musharraf. But not merely to become popular with the Pakistani people. Rather because, as Rohit Pradhan argues, the stable, moderate Pakistan that is crucial for international security is impossible unless it is also democratic.

13 thoughts on “No colours for the revolution in Pakistan”

  1. Nitin, the argument for US support for democracy assumes that Pakistan is capable of supporting it. Given its tortured 60 year history – where democracy has never taken root – that’s a big leap of faith. Seeing the chaos that blind faith in democracy has wrought in Iraq, it would be irrational to support this “uprising”. Also, as Ayesha Siddiqua argues, democracy in Pakistan may not be possible because of the army’s deep business interests. Going back to the barracks is not an option. Given Pakistan’s history, any rational response demands writing it off as a democratic candidate and preparing either for its balkanization or for extended military godfather-ing. The US is just being rational.

  2. Sorry for the double post. Here’s an excellent overview of the feudal, elitist mentality of Pakistan (vis-a-vis India) – and touches on the military industrial complex.

  3. Nitin – fair argument but may have to agree with Libertarian here on Balkanization. The idea of Pakistan in much the same way as USSR or a Yugoslavia is a highly questionable one unless its many regions remain welded together by the iron fist of a Military Dictatorship. Overall, Pakistan democratic or otherwise continues to be bad news for India, I guess we just have to brace ourselves for another half century of turmoil while the identity conflicts of the region resolve themselves from Iran to Afghanistan all the way upto our borders.

  4. I have always wondered what the fall of Musharraf and replacement by a mullah regime would mean for the world. It might be require a stretch of imagination, but isnt it plausible that if Musharraf is deposed or assasinated, a Taliban-supported (and possibly supported by factions in the military) Iran-style regime takes advantage of the confusion and grabs control, brushing aside the democratic elements who are protesting at present? Indeed what does it mean for the US? Iran has a well-instutionalised and stable political structure, and is only suspected of having nuclear weapons. But a mullah-run Pakistan will be unstable and unaccountable and will have nuclear weapons at hand.

    To say “the stable, moderate Pakistan that is crucial for international security is impossible unless it is also democratic” sound right, but it is simplistic to think that the ‘mass movement’ in Pakistan will not breed something monstrous. It can be argued that the US’ experience in Iraq (i.e., that bringing down a dictator doesnt necessarily usher in a stable democracy) is making it shy of experimenting in Pakistan. After all, the US’ relation with Musharraf might have been a step backwards, but it is certainly better than having another hostile govenment in the region.

  5. Agree with Libertarian. Any support to US, however little and however covert and overt, to fight Talibani and al-Qaeda will come the general and his successor. If democracy does take route, especially with Islamic parties from the west of country propping up a PM, American area to maneuver within Pakistan will decrease substantially.

    The colour revolutions were useful to pull former Soviet countries from Russian orbit. Pakistan has always been in American orbit – their own sob. But even after the colour revolution, the Orange one seems to be reverting to a bear hug – Putin tackled Uncle Sam brilliantly after all the gung-ho western stories subsided.

    It’s a lose-lose proposition to have democracy in Pakistan for US. And so it would be for India. Now at least we know who’s in charge if there is a terror attack. In a democracy, the Pakistan politicians and army will play off each other and we would never get a straight answer like it happened during Kargil war.

  6. Libertarian & Chandra

    Nitin, the argument for US support for democracy assumes that Pakistan is capable of supporting it. Given its tortured 60 year history – where democracy has never taken root – that’s a big leap of faith.

    It’s reasonable to say that no matter what the United States (or the rest of the world) does, Pakistan won’t turn into a democracy overnight. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The argument here is for the first step; or ‘at the margin’.


    Your point about knowing who is responsible is important, but limited to ‘public’ diplomacy. Democracy won’t weaken India’s ability to know who is causing the trouble, or to make the real culprits the target of its policy. Can’t say things will improve, but they won’t worsen either.

  7. Excellent posts by all. Democracy in India of course, as some of you live it, is no walk in the park, but appears to bear much good fruit. Who should we (in the US) provide some support to – Bhutto, this supreme court justice, or which groups?. The last few elections in the Muslim world have NOT been encouraging – either radicals come to the fore, or terrorism strikes the “moderates” in charge. Turkey will probably make it through but Pakistan – wow! the ethnic and religous parts as well as the urban classes have been repressed so long – that indeed I agree any “glasnost” is invitation to balkanization, or worse a miltarized radicalization. Consider if you will, a witches brew of Talibanized Pakistan, Iran and Russia forming a new axis of evil, identifying themselves in a loose sort of alliance. US would be alarmed but we’re already over-extended, but India would be on the front line.

  8. Robert,

    I’ve addressed some of the points you raise here in the discussion on this post over at the Winds of Change.

    There is an anti-Musharraf, anti-Islamist middle in Pakistan that needs to be strengthened. American support at this juncture can have an important signaling effect, convincing the ‘pragmatic’ among the political class to join the bandwagon. I will go out on a limb here and argue that should there be a clear signal from America, a political formation that represents this “middle” will promptly emerge.

  9. … Pakistan won’t turn into a democracy overnight. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step

    The army is the elephant in the room. They are neck-deep in politics _and_ business and show no intention of vacating. For institutions or civil processes of any kind to develop in their shadow requires mighty imagination and far mightier action. The only time their civil society had a real opportunity was after 1971 when the army was shamed for a while – and their civilian leadership blew it big time. It seems only another cataclysmic split will provide the requisite political and economic space to finally put this monster back in the barracks.

  10. “Democracy won’t weaken India’s ability to know who is causing the trouble, or to make the real culprits the target of its policy”

    Nitin, I am not so sure. Knowing the real culprits and getting someone to do something about them is different, especially if there are two power centers, with the unaccountable center having more power. Democracy in Pakistan, just as in any country, is surely desirable only if the army is under the total control of civilians, else it’s better for everyone, including Pakistanis, to have the real power be in charge.

  11. Its depressing but Chandra’s analysis seems to be most accurate. If there is any way the US could do more to pressure Musharraff or a military successor to be responsible and actually execute on the commitments made, that seems to be the best realistic solution at least short term.

    With a weak ‘kind of democratic’ govt in power Pakistan gets lots of cover (enhanced most likely by a Democrat US presidency from 2008), the military gets back to full-throttle behind the scenes support for all kinds of crooked stuff and things are worse for all concerned.

    Does the Pak center have enough strength to support this elected PM to dis-empower, even if gradually the military? esp when the mullahs will close ranks with the military and project these efforts as anti-patriotic, anti-Islamic, a sellout to the US.


  12. Ravindra

    The zero-sum thinking not only goes on, but goes on to absurd levels. I can’t believe Rediff publishes such stuff, especially allows such idiotic headlines.

Comments are closed.