Of late, Pakistan has been in the international spotlight for a variety of reasons ranging from a standoff with India last June in the disputed Kashmir region, a rather bizarre coup, and of late, the trial of the ex-premier Nawaz Sharif. Of extreme importance was the refusal of six Pakistani Supreme Court justices (including the chief justice) to take on oath of allegiance to the military regime of General Pervaiz Musharraf. The judges were subsequently dismissed, leading to questions regarding the legitimacy of the Sharif trial.
There has been debate in America regarding the US response to these developments in the country. American deliberations have been weighted by the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power and as a result a different set of rules and criteria must be applied to determine the American response. The coup that brought Army Chief of Staff Pervaiz Musharraf to power in October should not be condemned out of hand. And it may well bring stability to a country and a region where stability is in short supply. Also, we must remember that Nawaz Sharif was notorious for grabbing power and was often referred to as a strongman for his arm-twisting tactics. During his rule, one Chief Justice resigned from office after failing to proceed with corruption charges against Sharif. Pakistani democracy was unstable, with four elected governments in the past ten years (in a country where elections are supposed to come after every ten years). Additionally, corruption charges that stick had totally discredited the political establishment in the eyes of a people desperate for improvement in their lives.
Leaving issues of bad governance aside, Pakistan’s plight is made even worse by the presence of radical militants from neighboring Afghanistan who seek to spread their own intolerant vision of Islam. A Pakistan where the central government loses effective control over much of the country and, in the process, becomes a safe haven for militants is not something the American foreign policy establishment should want. Promoting democracy in Pakistan is extremely important, but for the present, a secure and strong government in Islamabad is necessary.
U.S. policy should try to encourage the military regime to straighten out the country: tough laws against corruption, restraint in behavior where India is concerned, a strong stance on terrorism and continued cooperation with American authorities in catching terrorists should be encouraged. Most important, a stable, responsible Pakistan entails an economically well-off Pakistan’ isolating Pakistan will not help that. The United States should avoid economic sanctions.
Aid should be made available but contingent on Pakistan adopting economic reforms that increase the odds the money will be put to good use. The upper cadres of the Pakistani military and civil services used to be drawn from the westernized elite, which adopted a favorable attitude vis-Ã -vis western interests. Now, much of this elite is drawn into the corporate sector and it is necessary for America to keep up its contacts with the military and continue to train officers. They should be given to understand that democratic institutions are crucial to the well being of any modern state. Such military involvement is important when countries like Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan are concerned.
Rather than isolate Pakistan over the recent developments, America should seek to engage it to bring out a responsible bent in it’s functioning. One political contact in particular that merits consideration is a presidential visit. No American president has visited Pakistan since Richard Nixon went there some three decades ago. President Clinton is visiting India and Bangladesh this year but he has not decided if a visit to Pakistan is yet in the cards. The visit was previously postponed due to last year’s nuclear tests. President Clinton might not visit Pakistan lest his visit be interpreted as a condoning of the coup.
However, President Clinton’s visit could be used as a powerful lever to induce the Pakistani military to make explicit commitments. His visit could be used to open up Pakistan. More important, he could emphasize in his visit that the United States will in no way tolerate an unjustifiable action against the now deposed Sharif. Pakistan has had an unfortunate history of military coups, and an even more unfortunate history of hanging the overthrown officials. Zulfikar Bhutto, the Pakistani prime minister overthrown by General Zia in the late ’70s, was hung after a trial similar to the one Sharif is subject to.
The US needs to realize that economic sanctions and isolationist measures are not the right manner to proceed when dealing with states such as Pakistan, which have nuclear prowess. It is better to start a policy of engagement to open Pakistan up and the way to start up that process would be by easing economic sanctions and a Presidential visit to the country. Surely, if President Clinton visits India and not Pakistan, it will give impetus to the anti American hawks within Pakistani society and signal that America is following on a recently suggested move to give greater weight to India with respect to Pakistan. However, a visit would mean that America is interested in dealing with India and Pakistan on a relatively level playing field.