Some people in the Bush administration can't quite let go of Pervez Musharraf—even though Musharraf himself is letting go of Pakistan. The Pakistani president, already marginalized by a hostile newly elected government, has so little to do he's been playing a lot of bridge lately, according to a source inside the government. Expectations are that he'll quietly step down around the same time his greatest champion, George W. Bush, leaves office in early 2009. (At which time his likely replacement could be his erstwhile mortal enemy, Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial husband of the murdered Benazir Bhutto, who leads the now-dominant Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). But some hard-line U.S. officials inside the White House (interestingly enough, not including Dick Cheney) are still clinging to Musharraf's failed anti-Al Qaeda policies—which depended almost entirely on sporadic military strikes and CIA-Pakistani cooperation on intel—after nearly seven years of overwhelming evidence that they don't work. What's the evidence, you ask? Osama bin Laden and his operational commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still alive and at large.
So what will work? The new government of Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani is betting on what U.S. officials would identify as a classic counterinsurgency strategy: deploying the military while winning hearts and minds by pouring aid into the tribal regions where extremists hide out. The Bush administration adopted such a policy for the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but for some reason it's not entirely ready to do so in Pakistan. Asked last week about a draft peace deal between the new government and the tribal hard-liners, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We are concerned about it … what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists." Some officials in the National Security Council fear a repeat of the deal that Musharraf struck with Islamist militants in 2006, which was promptly ignored by them.
But others in the administration, especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director Michael Hayden, agree with the new government in Pakistan that a sophisticated counterinsurgency strategy—including a "vigorous reconstruction program" in the tribal areas—is the way to go. These officials have sought to moderate Perino's remarks. And one U.S. official remarks, rather astonished: "Cheney has been an ally for us on this." Indeed, with a new PPP-friendly military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Asif, the Pakistanis have something entirely different in mind than Musharraf's strategy, according to Pakistani officials. Since the PPP won the parliamentary election in February, the government has begun negotiating with civilian tribal leaders with the intent of isolating and undercutting the power of the militant Mehsud Baitullah, the faceless jihadi leader who has transformed his Mehsud tribe's mountainous badlands in the northwest corner of Pakistan into a safe haven for Al Qaeda.
Contrary to some reports that it is backing down from military pressure, however, Islamabad has refused to withdraw the 120,000 troops it has arrayed in the lawless region before any deal is struck, causing a stalemate in the negotiations. In talks with Washington, the new government is also conceding that the CIA—which has conducted at least three dozen Predator strikes inside Pakistan—will be permitted to operate there as long as it is completely confident about the accuracy of its intelligence.
One irony of the U.S. reluctance to adopt the new government's approach is that after six years of declaring that democracy is the solution to extremism, Bush can't let go of his fellowship feelings for Musharraf enough to apply his administration's own principle to Pakistan. Indeed, there is perhaps nowhere on earth where this tenet is truer than in Pakistan. As Husain Haqqani, who is soon to be Pakistan's new ambassador to the United States, described it in his 2005 book, "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military," as long as military strongmen run Islamabad, radical Islamists will always have a safe haven inside Pakistan. Why? Because Pakistan's military and intelligence leaders and its Islamists have long shared the same ideological bed. Haqqani argued then that Pakistani generals, in order to justify their place atop the government, have constantly used the unifying principle of Islam and the perceived threat from Hindu India. This helps explain everything from the military's decades-old effort to build up an Islamist insurgency in disputed Kashmir to Islamabad's successful strategy of aiding and building up the Taliban in neighboring Pakistan during the '90s. Only democracy, Haqqani wrote, "can gradually wean the country from Islamic extremism. Musharraf cannot. Unless Islamabad's objectives are redefined to focus on economic prosperity and popular participation in governance—which the military as an institution remains reluctant to do—the state will continue to turn to Islam as a national unifier." Haqqani's views are believed to be shared by Gilani, Zardari and other PPP leaders. As Gilani wrote Wednesday in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post: "We will reform our tribal areas economically, politically and socially."
There is simply no other way. Pakistani democracy has always been troubled, even in the pre-Musharraf days. But the nation's saving grace has always been that Islamists have typically polled poorly against secular parties. Indeed, extremist religious parties never did better than they performed under Musharraf, when he barred the parties of his main democratic rivals, Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. If there is any place in the Muslim world where extremist Islam can be politically marginalized—if not eliminated—it is there.
The Bush administration's resistance to the new approach is likely to die away quickly. In a little noted comment on April 14, Rice noted that a "new strategic opportunity" had arisen with Pakistan's democratic transition and that "Pakistan now will need to find a way to have very solid civilian control of the armed forces." The new Islamabad government's hopes lie with her, Hayden and other savvy players such as Defense Secretary Bob Gates and incoming CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus.
Note: In my column last week, "How the South Won (This) Civil War," I used some careless language to describe certain tendencies in Southern and frontier thinking. When I wrote that after the settlement of the South and frontier by Scots-Irish immigrants, "a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores," I didn't mean to say that these tendencies described any particular ethnic group today, or that such mores are representative in general of the thinking of people in the South or West, only that they had emerged historically among some subsections of the population as part of the Jacksonian warrior culture in those regions.