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U.S. Faces Pakistan Policy Dilemmas After Bhutto’s Death

December 28, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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In the aftermath of the death of political opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan faces new turmoil and the United States faces tough choices in its policies toward the South Asian nation. Policy experts examine the ramifications of Bhutto's death on Pakistan's governance and the future for Pakistani-U.S. relations.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States and Pakistan have been allies for decades, and the relationship has intensified since 9/11.

The Bhutto assassination has focused new attention on U.S. interests in Pakistan and all of South Asia and on what the U.S. should do now.

We get two views. Daniel Markey was on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2003 until early this year, focusing on South Asia. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Michael Krepon is a co-founding president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on arms control and security issues. He’s also a diplomatic scholar at the University of Virginia.

Key U.S. ally destabilized

Daniel Markey
Council on Foreign Relations
[W]hat Pakistan means to the Bush administration is primarily a counterterror issue at this stage and then, by extension, a militancy problem that extends into Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Michael Krepon, why is Pakistan so important to the United States at this moment? What's at stake there?

MICHAEL KREPON, Co-Founding President, Henry L. Stimson Center: The prosecution of the war in Afghanistan depends on Pakistan. If Pakistan goes south, we can expect a flaring up of the Pakistan-India relationship. We can expect a flaring up of the Afghan border. We can expect the dissolution of politics in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Daniel Markey, do you have anything to add to that? Is that the way you see it?

DANIEL MARKEY, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, pretty much.

I think that what Pakistan means to the Bush administration is primarily a counterterror issue at this stage and then, by extension, a militancy problem that extends into Afghanistan. And, so, greater instability within Pakistan means less capacity by the Pakistani government to focus on these issues that are of primary national security importance to the Bush administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, given what you just said, how does the death of Benazir Bhutto change the calculus?

DANIEL MARKEY: Well, I think it is very clear that the level of internal violence within Pakistan is very high. The level -- the question about the future stability of the state, about Musharraf's place in leadership, is all up in the air at this stage.

And all of these things mean that Pakistan's top leaders are not thinking very seriously about what's happening on the border with Afghanistan, where, as I said, the United States is very focused.

U.S.-mediated effort in tatters

Michael Krepon
Henry L. Stimson Center
It was profoundly unwise for the Bush administration to try to midwife a political relationship between Benazir and Musharraf.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Krepon, does this assassination weaken Pervez Musharraf?

MICHAEL KREPON: Very much so.

It was profoundly unwise for the Bush administration to try to midwife a political relationship between Benazir and Musharraf. And, if I'm not mistaken, Dan supported that effort.

There have been political crises in Pakistan before, crises that have been created by military misrule. These crises are not solved by the creators of the crisis. They have been solved in the past when the leader associated with the crisis leaves.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Markey, were you a supporter of the attempt for these two giants on the current Pakistan political scene to find a way to live with each other during this period?

DANIEL MARKEY: Yes, I have seen this as being a relatively good idea. And the logic behind it is -- has been that, on the one hand, you have a President Musharraf who very clearly has been in charge of the army. On the other hand, you had Benazir Bhutto, who speaks to a larger segment of the Pakistani population.

And at some level, the two see eye to eye -- it may be at a relatively basic level -- about the direction that Pakistan should be going. And that direction is a more moderate and progressive one. And the idea is that, by combining these two, there was a possibility that you could see better governance within the country that would take it in a positive direction.

Unfortunately, as we all know, this hasn't worked very effectively. Unfortunately, ultimately, her return has led to tragedy.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now, with Benazir Bhutto gone, what does the U.S. have left, after trying to broker this entente between these two political figures?

DANIEL MARKEY: Well, I think, at this stage, the United States is probably and the Bush administration probably still looking for a way to salvage a process, an electoral process that's very much in play, and to try to keep to some sort of a timetable for elections, to try to bring the PPP along, still to keep it as a unified party, and to work with whomever arises as the next leader within that party, or group of individuals who can assume leadership within the PPP, and to continue on with this gradual transition towards something that is more democratic, more civilian, and more capable of addressing Pakistan's long-term problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Krepon, does the United States have that much influence any longer?

MICHAEL KREPON: Well, we do have influence, still, in the country. We have influence with the military. But, by standing four-square behind Musharraf, by thinking of him as indispensable in a transition strategy, I think that's profoundly unwise.

He's now a central part of the problem. He cannot become a part of the solution. In my judgment, the United States needs to privately convey the message to General Musharraf that it's time for him to go. And, in announcing his resignation, he should also announce the formation of a coalition government, a government of national unity, which he has absolutely no part in creating. I think this is the way forward.

Potential electoral vacuum

Daniel Markey
Council on Foreign Relations
If Pakistan cannot have stability enough to hold national elections, it's hard to believe that they could engineer a situation where they could have a unity government.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there figures of enough political power able to knit together various parts of a very divided country who could participate in a government like this and make it work?

MICHAEL KREPON: You know, we should never underestimate Pakistan's resilience. This is a country that has been through more than any other country since 9/11. It's a country that's been through military-led crises before. It's a country that has been vivisected before.

There are still enough people in this country from various political parties who have standing in the country and who can knit together a pathway to the future. And there are lots of people in this country who are not politicians: lawyers, civil society leaders, humanitarian leaders. There are lots of people who can make this happen. But it will never happen under Musharraf.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Markey, what do you think of that idea, a government of national unity, given the state of play right now in the country?


Well, I have to agree with Michael on one point. There are a lot of very capable, smart and effective people in Pakistan. The problem is that they are -- they tend not to be empowered politically. They tend not to be in a position where they could actually come together in a unity government.

And the people who would likely be called together to form such a government are, I think, themselves probably very politicized and are as unlikely to get along or agree to work together as what we have seen over the past several months in terms of the lead-up to these elections.

If Pakistan cannot have stability enough to hold national elections, it's hard to believe that they could engineer a situation where they could have a unity government of the type that Michael is describing.

RAY SUAREZ: What about those elections? The Bush administration has called for them to go forward. Does that look likely to you?

DANIEL MARKEY: Well, I think the Bush administration would like to see them happen. But I think that there is every chance that they may be postponed.

I think the ball is really in the PPP's court at this stage to determine whether they have a kind of a unified position on whether the elections should go ahead or whether they would prefer to push them off for some period of time. And I think the Bush administration is likely to listen to that message, when it comes out of the PPP.

Musharraf potentially an impediment

Michael Krepon
Henry L. Stimson Center
Elections are not the solution as long as Musharraf remains as president.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Krepon, go ahead.


Ray, elections, whether they are held in a couple weeks from now or a month from now, under Musharraf's leadership, under an election commission handpicked by Musharraf, under poll watchers handpicked by Musharraf, is not going to lead anywhere good for Pakistan's future. It will lead to more chaos, more jeopardy of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, and more internal chaos in Pakistan.

Elections are not the solution as long as Musharraf remains as president.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Nawaz Sharif said he wasn't going to participate. Now that Benazir Bhutto is dead, is there even anyone in the People's Party of stature to contest on behalf of that party, Michael Krepon?

MICHAEL KREPON: There are good people in that party, one of whom is still under house arrest. He was -- Aitzaz Ahsan is his name. He was mentioned on your program last night.

But there are good people in all of these parties. There are people that still have the respect of the Pakistani people. And the reason why the situation has become so politicized, the reason why these parties are so weak is because they have systemically been undermined by the Musharraf government.

It is still possible. It is hard, but it is still possible, but not under Musharraf's leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Markey, before we go, are we looking at a country right now that could go the way of Congo, of Somalia, of -- like an imploding failed state?

DANIEL MARKEY: I'm not convinced that we are. I think Pakistan still has a level of institutions, in particular, within the army, but also a civil society that would separate it from those types of failed states.

I am convinced, though, that we are in a level of instability that has really been unprecedented, at least since 9/11, and for much of Pakistan's history, that the -- the real backbone, the dominant political institution, the army, is being stressed, both by its activities on the border areas and also by these political crises, in a way that is very troubling and very disconcerting. But I don't think we've reached that stage.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Markey, Michael Krepon, gentlemen, thank you both.