Ever since the September 11th attacks, the Bush administration has been warning Americans that, but for the rule of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, the sky would be falling. Musharraf, we were told, was what was standing between us and a flood of Islamic extremists who would unleash acts of terrorism around the world. In the war on terror, leaders were either with us or against us, and Bush knew, after talking with Musharraf, that the man was in our corner. He would keep the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in check. It's now time for the U.S. to recognize that events on the ground have proven Bush wrong, and to change the way we conduct our relations with Pakistan lest we hamper the chances of the newly-elected government for successful democratic rule.
Since the initial decision to back Musharraf, the Bush administration has developed tunnel vision in Pakistan and failed to examine the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and what we were getting in return for our support. Never mind that ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, under Musharraf's direction, had helped to keep the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. Never mind that, despite the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. has given to Pakistan over the past six years, mostly to its military, Musharraf has failed to explain exactly what specific benefit he has provided to the U.S. In fact, he has been widely criticized by U.S. policy-makers, scholars, and even NATO commanders who have been concerned that Musharraf has not done enough to combat al-Qaeda and has been giving sanctuary to extremists in Pakistan's tribal areas that border Afghanistan. Much has been written about whether the U.S. has actually benefited from its relationship with Musharraf, and exactly how much has been spent with astonishingly little oversight. Despite this, the Bush administration has continued to deliver enormous sums of money to Musharraf and tout him as a great U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.
The U.S.'s backing of Musharraf has had two sets of consequences, one on the world stage, and the other within Pakistan itself. In the international arena, the U.S. has lost credibility as a purveyor of democracy. With no sense of irony, it has backed a military dictator, even as he suspended the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, cracked down on the media, jailed lawyers and opposition leaders, suspended the country's constitution, and, despite the massive aid to his military, failed to provide adequate security to Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in Rawalpindi, a Musharraf stronghold. In addition, the U.S. has placed unnecessary stress on its relationship with India and failed to consider the potential consequences for the region of the influx of so much money with so little scrutiny given to its use. Within Pakistan, overt U.S. support of Musharraf has diminished respect for him and made him a caricature to the people -- a puppet who sold his loyalty to a bullying super-power. Many who were not necessarily anti-U.S. became polarized by Bush's message to Musharraf that he had to be for us or against us. The thinking for many was, "Well, if I'm not entirely for you, then I guess I must be against you." And, because U.S. money and influence protected Musharraf even when he disregarded the most basic human, civil and political rights of Pakistani citizens, those abuses were attributed by the people to the U.S. Living under a dictatorship and living under U.S. influence became for many, one and the same.
Recent events in Pakistan show that the Bush administration was wrong to say that Musharraf was the country's and the world's best hope for fighting extremism in Pakistan. They also show that the U.S. must and should change its foreign policy approach in Pakistan if it is to achieve its goals of fostering democracy in the region and combating terrorism. Despite what we were told, the sky did not fall when Musharraf lost his grip on power. Instead, an effort to restore democracy and national institutions has begun amid cautious optimism. In spite of Musharraf's best efforts to prevent elections, they were held with relatively little violence and declared free and fair. The media, freed from recent restrictions, reached out to the people and encouraged them to vote, not according to the instructions of their village leaders, but rather in their own interests. According to one landowner in southern Punjab "our villagers didn't vote according to our wishes this time -- they voted for their own candidates -- something they haven't done in the past."
This sense of accomplishment by the people should buffer the new government from some criticism and skepticism, even if acts of terrorism are used to unseat or disturb it. Unlike the previous government, this one has at least the temporary good-will of many Pakistanis who are willing to give these politicians the benefit of the doubt and a chance to prove themselves. Despite Bush's warnings, the county has not been engulfed by radical terrorists, and the new government has committed itself to continuing the fight against terrorism, and opened the door for counter-insurgency tactics by reaching out to militants who are willing to lay down their arms. This tactic has been praised in the past by NATO and other military commanders but condemned by the Bush administration as an unacceptable way to deal with extremists. It shows that there may a uniquely Pakistani approach to addressing concerns of terrorism, while also promoting democracy and good governance within Pakistan.
The new government has wasted no time in letting Washington know that its heavy-handed diplomacy was a thing of the past. When the U.S. sent its Deputy secretary of state John Negroponte and assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher to meet with General Musharraf on the very day that the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, took office, high-level Pakistani lawyers and government officials immediately made it clear that this was a mistake, and that the new government, not Musharraf, would be making decisions in the country from now on. With unprecedented candor, high-level Pakistanis told Negraponte that his visit and its timing were unwelcome, as was the implication that the U.S. intends to micro-manage the political fall-out of the recent elections.
Washington should now listen to what they were told, take a lesson from Pakistan's democratically elected government and focus on the needs and the will of the people. Up until now, U.S. relations with Pakistan have been largely centralized and impersonal. Pakistanis have felt the presence of the U.S. through coercion exercised by and on their central government. Rather than take a prominent role in programs to assist with access to medical care, schooling, shelter, livelihoods and other staples of social welfare, the U.S. has poured most of its aid into Pakistan's military, and left non-governmental organizations to address the overwhelming needs of the people in what is still a relatively poor country. (Pakistan ranks 136th out of 177 on the 2007/2008 Human Development Index.)
Rather than continue its prominent role in supporting one person within the Pakistani government, the U.S. should now assume a low profile as the new-elected order establishes itself. At the same time, the U.S. should lend its assistance on the humanitarian front in order to allow the new government to achieve the credibility it needs to fight extremism, and diminish animosity among Pakistanis towards the U.S. Finally, the U.S. should show respect for and assist Pakistan in strengthening its core governmental institutions, so that they can be safeguarded through checks and balances, and become less vulnerable to corruption and extremism.
The U.S. should recognize that it is not betraying American security interests by allowing the new government space to develop without the appearance of being shackled to outside interests. Those recently elected and their supporters have reasons and will of their own to combat terrorism and extremism. Some in the country may not be for or against the U.S., but may be dedicated to the preservation of a safer and more prosperous Pakistan. Thus, the U.S. can best serve its own interests by helping the new leadership to win hearts and minds, boost the people's standard of living, and foster the sense of ownership many Pakistanis now have in their newly elected government. We have allowed our fears to dictate our policy in Pakistan, but recent events demonstrate that we do not need to sacrifice our ideals and standing around the world to secure our security.
Lisa Gans is a human rights lawyer who has worked with non-governmental organizations in Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Swalizand and Iraq. She specializes in legal and constitutional development, civil society development, women's rights, refugee issues.