Pakistan's Power Puzzle


The Pakistan Electoral Commission's decision to postpone the elections scheduled for January 8 because of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto could be justified on technical grounds, but few people in Pakistan will believe the decision was made on technical grounds. Under current conditions in Pakistan, which are worse that most U.S. reporting indicates, it is impossible to hold a free and fair election. But there is little indication that the government ever intended to hold a free and fair election, even when it could have.

I called a friend in Lahore this morning. The obstacles are not just that electoral materials (possibly including those prepared for rigging) were destroyed in the rioting. The country's infrastructure is under severe stress. In Lahore there are only 7 hours of electricity a day, and water pressure is also reported to be unreliable (I know those of you in Kabul may not feel their pain). Optic fiber lines were cut in Sindh, blacking out telecommunications for a while. The front page of Dawn online yields the following: There has been massive damage to the country's rail network. Fuel is in short supply, and the shortages are likely to get worse. The stock market and the currency are both crashing. Government ministers are charging "foreign elements" (i.e. India) with organizing the riots, a useful excuse for martial law.

In Pakistan there is a massive outburst of rage against Musharraf and everything associated with his government, including the government's claim that it has evidence that the Pakistani Taliban, led by Baitullah Mahsud, carried out the assassination. I still lean toward the hypothesis that the operation was carried out by organizations connected to al-Qaida. Given the relationship of the Pakistani military to jihadi organizations that by no means absolves the Musharraf regime of responsibility.

But what recent events demonstrate even more clearly is that the Bush administration's policy of relying on a personal relationship with a megalomaniac manipulator like Musharraf to fight al-Qaida has strengthened that organization immeasurably and perhaps fatally damaged the U.S.'s ability to form the coalition it needs to isolate and destroy that organization.

Many, probably most or nearly all, Pakistanis don't see the "War on Terror" as struggle of "moderates" against "extremists." They see it as a slogan to legitimate the military's authoritarian control . Through the classic psychological mechanism of reducing cognitive dissonance, it is only a short jump from believing that the threat of al-Qaida is being manipulated to strengthen authoritarian rule, to believing that the threat of al-Qaida is a hoax perpetrated to strengthen authoritarian rule. A similar mechanism of reducing cognitive dissonance has led many Americans to accept propaganda that the "anti-American" Saddam Hussein and the "anti-American" Islamic Republic of Iran" must be allied with the "anti-American" al-Qaida. (Before some member of the nutosphere calls me out for using quotation remarks around "anti-American," let me stipulate that the purpose of the quotation marks is to call attention to the fact that every organization that opposes the U.S. is not defined solely or even primarily by that opposition. It is not to claim that these entities are in fact "pro-American.")

The Bush administration's terrible simplification has not only harmed U.S. security interests; it has also done perhaps irreparable damage to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some readers protest when I lead with the implications of such events for U.S. foreign policy, as if I didn't think it worthwhile to mention the effects on those directly concerned. Believe me, I understand that Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all those other countries out there have purposes other than playing a role in scripts drafted in Washington.

But I am an American writing for a primarily American audience. I don't think that Pakistanis are looking to me to explain their country to them. I am trying to use my experience and expertise, such as it is, to convince my compatriots, our allies, and the international organizations to which we belong, to change their relationships with other countries. Sometimes I appear on the media here (the US) or speak to non-specialist audiences. They always ask me to explain the implications for them.

There is a connection, however, between the foreign policy interests of the U.S. and the direct effect on, in this case, Pakistan. That is because the script writers in Washington impose their own terrible simplifications on the people whose behavior they are trying to affect, without understanding who those people are and what they want, often with disastrous consequences.

The current situation in Pakistan is a case in point. The Bush administration has decided that in the "Muslim world" a battle is going on between pro-American "moderates" and anti-American "extremists." According to them, the "Muslim world" has a two-party system organized around how Muslims feel about America. In Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf is a "pro-American moderate." Benazir Bhutto is a "pro-American moderate." Therefore it is only logical (and in U.S. interests!) for the U.S. to realign Pakistan politics so that the "moderates" work together against the "extremists."

This ignores a few problems. It is not just a random problem that the "pro-American moderate" institution headed by General Musharraf executed Benazir's father and held her for years in solitary confinement. Despite Musharraf's propagation of the PR slogan, "enlightened moderation," the institution that he headed, and which put him in power, supported the Taliban unstintingly for many years and failed to deliver any results against al-Qaida when it would really have counted. This is the same institution that massacred hundreds of thousands of its own countrymen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The administration's plan for Pakistan was based on a model of transition from authoritarianism that took place in several Latin American countries, which is known as a "pacted transition." (If you want to know more about it, Google "transitology.") The basic idea is that the "moderates" in the bureaucratic authoritarian regime and the "moderates" in the democratic opposition negotiate a peaceful process of extrication of the military from power through elections, which may initially be "guided" rather than "free and fair." Of course the administration seem to have neglected one of the research's main findings: pacted transitions give rise to "democracies with birth defects." Among those birth defects are continued control by the military over key areas of policy and the limited consolidation of democracy. Much depends on what the leaders of the military are actually trying to accomplish.

This already happened in Pakistan. In 1988 General Zia-ul-Haq's hand-picked Prime Minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, got in several conflicts with Zia over Afghanistan (the negotiation of the Geneva Accords and the explosion of weapons destined for the Afghan muijahidin at an ISI warehouse in Rawalpindi). After the as yet unsolved Case of the Exploding Mangoes, which killed General Zia, ISI Director General Akhtar Abdul Rahman, and U.S. Ambassador Arnie Raphel, the military dismissed Junejo and agreed to a reasonably free election, which was won by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. After the death of General Zia, whom Bhutto and many Pakistanis held responsible for her father's death, she was able to return.

But her electoral victory did not settle the issue. Bhutto first had to negotiate with the military and agree not to remove military authority over security issues, notably Afghanistan, the nuclear program, Kashmir, and senior military appointments. After the failed attempt by the ISI with U.S. backing to orchestrate the conquest of the Afghan city of Jalalabad in March 1989 (using not only Afghan mujahidin but also al-Qaida), Bhutto sacked ISI director General Hamid Gul. Other conflicts with the military ensued. As a result, the military had President Ghulam Ishaq Khan remove her on corruption charges in August 1990. The military and bureaucracy rigged the elections in October 1990 so that she would be defeated by Nawaz Sharif.

I will come back to the election rigging, because the government used the same technique that it was apparently planning to employ this time as well, namely the establishment of "ghost polling places" to return fake ballots in key constituencies identified by the ISI's Electoral Cell. This method of rigging is not visible to foreign election observers.

When Nawaz Sharif in turn became too independent, it was his turn to be sacked. This was followed by two rounds of alternance determined by the military (Bhutto in 1994, Sharif in 1996). The final confrontation between Nawaz Sharif and General Musharraf was provoked again by a struggle over the military's prerogatives. Sharif charged that Musharraf organized the Kargil campaign in Kashmir on his own initiative, while Sharif was pursuing negotiations with the U.S. over Bin Laden behind Musharraf's back.

The leaders of the Pakistan military, of which Musharraf is a typical example, do not see themselves primarily as "pro-American moderates" battling with "anti-American extremists." They see themselves as responsible for building a powerful militarized state in Pakistan representing the heritage of Islamic empires in South and Central Asia against the threat from India and the selfish maneuvers of politicians (not necessarily in that order). In the course of doing so, they have enriched themselves and gained control of much of the economy and civilian administration. The military has always aspired to control the judiciary as well, and Musharraf has now restored to that institution the supine illegitimacy that it possessed under General Zia. This means of course that the use of institutional power for private gain by the military is legal (as the judiciary has no power over the military), while similar use of institutional power by civilians is "corruption."

The military allies with the U.S. because that is the only way to get the weapons and money for their national security project and to prevent the U.S. from aligning with India. It has nothing to do with "moderation." The "pro-American moderate" Pakistan military has used the "anti-American extremist" jihadis for its national security project. (By the way, the Afghan Taliban were not originally anti-American. In 1997, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, who later became foreign minister, told a meeting I was chairing at Columbia University that the Taliban would help the U.S. "in its struggle against international terrorism," and nobody wanted to build the Unocal pipeline more than they did.)

The goal of the Pakistan military has been neither moderation nor extremism as defined in Washington. Its goal has been to stay in power in order to pursue its national security project, which is also in its institutional interest and the private interest of its members. So why did Musharraf enter into negotiations with Bhutto? As Chief of Army Staff, Musharraf occupied a role similar to that of head of the ruling party in a one-party dominant system. His party, the military, unlike the other parties, is a disciplined cadre organization which, along with its fellow travelers (civilian allies of the military) controls all the key levers of power, including the civil administration and the judiciary. Such control is, it believes, required by the national interest. Musharraf added to this an economic policy under the guidance of his Prime Minister, former Citibank official Shaukat Aziz, that has indeed succeeded to some extent. In fact it helped create the middle class and new communications media that are leading the fight to oust Musharraf.

In order to maintain the essential base of his party's control (U.S. weapons and money) after 9/11, Musharraf had to abandon the military's historic political alliance with the religious right and its allied militants.But Pakistan is not a "banana republic," i.e. a tiny country with a single cohesive landowning elite that can run a dictatorship informally through intimidation, violence, and patronage (though these have a role to play). It is a country of 160 million with one of the largest cities in the world (Karachi) and a well-developed middle class. Running such a country requires a higher degree of institutionalization and political legitimation. Hence Musharraf needed new political allies to run institutions.

But he did not want political allies to negotiate a transition to democracy: he wanted political allies to legitimate continued military rule. The Islamist parties were willing to partner with the military on that basis, because it was their only way of acceding to power. But the PPP and the PML-N (Nawaz Sharif's party) could actually win elections. While the military tried to use Washington's interest in an alliance of "moderates" to legitimate its own rule, it could not allow a party that actually aspired to rule to come to power. Enter the PML-Q (Musharraf's party, aka the King's Party). The military assembled this party out of notables of various sorts to represent those civilian allies that supported military rule. This description does not apply to every official of the PML-Q (some of whom are friends of mine), who joined for different reasons. Some, in particular, supported the relatively successful economic policies of Shaukat Aziz. But the party exists basically in order to win elections rigged by the military.

Benazir Bhutto, however, probably imagined that the opening provided by the U.S. pressure on Musharraf for a "moderate" alliance (to legitimate Musharraf's power for the sake of the "War on Terror," not democracy) might provide her with an opening she could exploit to regain power. I will not attempt to judge among the various claims about Bhutto -- from heroine of democracy to power-hungry corrupt feudal. I will just note that she knew she was risking her life and did not need to do so. When President Karzai met her the morning of her death, she told the Afghans she feared she would be assassinated soon. She represented the hopes of millions of people. To represent them, she would have had to challenge the military's power. Nor did she take the easy populist route (seemingly chosen by Nawaz Sharif) of belittling the threat of the militants. Though what she said about the militants pleased Washington, many things she said about General Musharraf did not. I believe that events will tragically show that she was right.

Her strategy appeared to be to exploit the military's weakness and the support of the U.S. to enlarge the space for her party's power, and therefore, in the flawed sense this word has in the real world, of democracy. (The family inheritance of leadership has a rational function too: without it, there is a good chance that the PPP would tear itself apart in factional struggles. It still might do so, but the appointment of her son as heir and her husband as regent has provided some breathing space.)

But Musharraf was not going to let her win. On December 11 Dawn published a story purportedly announding the "official poll results" nearly a month before the scheduled elections. The PML-Q was to win the most seats, with the PPP second and PML-N third. The numbers were chosen in such a way that the Islamist parties that supported the Afghan Taliban, the military's old partners, would have few seats but enough to hold the balance of power.

How to get such results? The ISI has an electoral cell that, among other things, conducts polling. (A friend who is familiar with the operation claims that the polling is not reliable and tends to be driven by the desired outcome.) The purpose is not to win a referendum with 99% of the vote, but to get a balance that leaves the military in charge through its political allies. This does not require rigging every constituency, but controlling the media and administration to create a positive environment for the miltiary's allies, and then rigging only a few dozen constituencies where the outcome is nonetheless in doubt (plus constituencies of key leaders). The principal technique is the printing of more ballots than are needed and the establishment of "ghost polling places" in the constituencies that are to be rigged. The excess ballots are filled out for the desired candidates and placed in "ballot boxes" belonging to the ghost polling places. The ballot boxes and their fictitious totals are forwarded to the returning officer together with the legitimate ballots. The system needs only to approximate its target to achieve the desired political results.

The PPP now wants to capitalize on the public's anger and sympathy. The time that the electoral commission could use to reconstitute the infrastructure for a free and fair election is also time that could be used to reconstitute the infrastructure for rigging. Hence the PPP probably sees no good reason to allow the electoral apparatus to reconstitute itself.

A genuine free election in Pakistan today could very well confront President Musharraf with a parliament that would not recognize him and that would openly challenge the power of the army. But the military no longer has the capacity or legitimacy to rule Pakistan. The time for a pacted transition is past. The choice before Pakistan is democracy or disintegration.

In a further post I will discuss hypotheses about responsibility for Bhutto's assassination and the relationship of the Pakistan army to the jihadi militants.

UPDATE: Ahmed Rashid has published an incisive analysis from Pakistan in Yale Global Online. He writes:

In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan faces the gravest threat to its unity since the country was born amid bloodshed 60 years earlier.

Although the security of the whole world is at stake from the way power is transferred in this nuclear weapon state, world leaders can do little but look on helplessly as Pakistan’s cowed political establishment and dispirited military face the threat of a determined Al Qaeda–backed Islamic extremists. While enormous public anger and mistrust swells in the nuclear-armed nation, both President Pervez Musharraf and his leading backer, the US, have lost all credibility over managing free and democratic elections, combating extremism or delivering stability to the troubled region.

* Barnett R. Rubin is Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University, where he directs the program on the Reconstruction of Afghanistan. He has worked at CIC since July 2000. During 1994-2000 he was Director of the Center for Preventive Action, and Director, Peace and Conflict Studies, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In November-December 2001 he served as special advisor to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, during the negotiations that produced the Bonn Agreement. He advised the United Nations on the drafting of the constitution of Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Compact, and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

Dr. Rubin is the author of Blood on the Doorstep: the Politics of Preventing Violent Conflict (2002); The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (2002; first edition 1995), and The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State (1995).