The tragic murder of Benazir Bhutto in the midst of a Pakistani election campaign is a jarring reminder that politics, particularly in that part of the world, is a contact sport. Many American pundits and politicians already are filling the airways deploring the attack and calling for democracy. This shows me we have learned nothing from our debacle in Iraq.
The majority of people in Pakistan favor Islamic fundamentalism. Got that? If there is a fully free election we should not be surprised if the winner is someone who is not in sync with a Western view that values pluralism and secularism. Also, we probably would not be able to count on them insisting that Israel’s right to exist be protected. OK?
[UPDATE: It is important not to confuse or conflate Islamic fundamentalism with Islamic extremism. I am not arguing that the majority of Pakistanis favor the extremism espoused by the likes of Al Qaeda. But, neither are they eager to promote a plural, secular society where religion takes a back seat. The situation is made more complex by internal divisions pitting Sunni vs. Shia and ethinic minorities like the Baluchis. The goal of Islamic extremists to impose Sharia breaks down among the fundamentalists because there is no consensus about which Islamic laws/beliefs are the essence of the Islamic life.]
The military and intelligence services are not a monolith. There are some in both institutions that are favorably disposed to work with us and believe in the necessity of reining in the Islamic extremists. But they also contain officers who share the vision and values of the extremists. Men who have helped fund, train, and protect the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and groups such as the Harakat Ul Ansar. They are committed first and foremost to creating a Pakistan ruled by Sharia and are intolerant of those pushing for accommodation with the west.
The immediate goal for the United States is to assume a low profile and work quietly behind the scenes. I’m sure that most of the U.S. pundits and politicians offering prescriptions for Pakistan’s future are well intentioned. But notwithstanding being well meaning, meddling is still meddling.We should recognize that there is a limit to our influence and that those who are perceived publicly as our closest allies may have the most to fear.
We need to define our interests in the country and region and proceed constructing our policy from there. I suggest we consider the following as our primary objectives:
- promote a stable government that upholds rule of law and shies away from religious extremism (come to think of it, that should be our goal for the U.S. as well);
- maintain and strengthen close ties with police, military, and intelligence officials willing to engage Islamic extremists;
- ensure that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are in the hands of responsible, secular officials and institutions;
- support economic development activities to counter the influence of the madrassas;
- encourage regional cooperations among Iran, Afghanistan, and India to eliminate drug trafficking and paramilitary training.
In pursuing these objectives the Bush Administration and its successor would be well advised that working quietly in the shadows will pay more dividends than playing the role of the drunken mother-in-law intent on lecturing her daughter’s intoxicated husband on the evils of booze. The drunken in-law may feel better unloading her concerns but the message is likely to get lost in a storm of resentment and shouting.