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US tolerance for Musharraf slammed

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
July 26, 2007 05:17 IST
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A leading South Asian expert has told Congress that there was a time when Pakistan used to be an important state because of its assets, but today is "just as important because of its problems," and that the United States was "wrong to tolerate (Pakistani President Pervez) Musharraf's contempt for democracy."

Stephen P Cohen, director of the South Asia Program at The Brookings Institution, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that convened a hearing on Pakistan's future titled 'Building Democracy or Fueling Extremism,' recalled, "Pakistan was once truly a moderate Muslim country, the radical Islamists were marginal and it had a democratic tradition even when the military ruled."

"In recent years," however, he argued, "Virtually all segments of Pakistani opinion have turned anti-American," and slamming its president Pervez Musharraf, said that the military dictator "...has not moved towards restoring real democracy, and Pakistan has been the worst proliferator of advanced nuclear and missile technology, and the country continues to harbor -- partially involuntarily -- extremists and terrorists whose dedicated mission is to attack the United States and Pakistan's neighbors."

Cohen, nonetheless acknowledged that recent events show that while Pakistanis may be at times incapable of operating a democracy, they want one."

"The Supreme Court's reversal of the suspension of the chief justice, the restraint of moderate politicians, the courageous actions of the Pakistan press and electronic media, and the outpouring of support for democracy among Pakistani professionals and elites are all convincing evidence that the US was wrong to tolerate Musharraf's contempt for democracy," he said.

Cohen said, "One more or less free election will not fix the problem, however, and building a workable democracy will take time."

A regular witness before Congressional Committees exploring situations in South Asia, Cohen has been writing about Pakistan since the mid-1960s, and has been visiting Pakistan regularly since 1977. He is the author of two books on Pakistan -- The Pakistan Army (1985) and The Idea of Pakistan (2004), and has dealt with Pakistan during the two years he spent on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during the Reagan Administration under then Secretary of State George Shultz.

In a blistering attack on Musharraf, he expert said, "Musharraf is personally moderate but is strategically indecisive and is in political decline."

 "He has led Pakistan by exiling the leading political opposition, co-opting some of the most corrupt elements of Pakistani society and aligning with the Islamists," he added.

"His survival strategy was to meet external pressure from the US, China, and India with minimal concessions. However, in the last year or so he has systematically alienated most segments of Pakistani society and infuriated his friends, both at home and abroad," Cohen added.

He predicted that Musharraf "will stay on only if he allies with the centrist political forces in Pakistan," and that "if he continues to stumble, mass protests will make his rule impossible."

"Severe riots in Lahore and other Punjabi cities will likely turn the army against him," Cohen said, but acknowledged that "if he accommodates the centrist opposition parties he should be able to stay on, albeit without his uniform."

He said that the United States need not "...have to worry over much about Musharraf's successor, or civil-military coalition, "but warned however that "unless real reform is taken now, the government that follows that may be cause for worry. In theory, Musharraf is capable of initiating such reform, but in practice he has been reluctant to do it."

Cohen also observed that Pakistan's domestic politics remain shaped by its security and foreign policy concerns, and explained, "To the east there is a continuing threat from India, whose army has now adopted a policy that amounts to attacking in force across the border in retaliation for the next terrorist incident."

"Fortunately," he said, "This may not be the Indian government's policy. Continuing hostility with India ensures that the Pakistani army will indefinitely remain at the center of Pakistani politics."

Cohen said that "looking west, the army remains concerned about India's encircling influence in Afghanistan, and there are strong tribal ties between Pakistani and Afghan Pushtuns. This means that American policy has to deal with both sides of the border if it wants to stabilize Afghanistan."

He asserted that "Washington cannot again abandon Pakistan, but it needs to change the nature of the relationship with a state whose collapse would be devastating to American interests."

But he said that "...the United States needs to make it absolutely clear to the Pakistani leadership what our highest priorities are, and be prepared to withdraw our reduce our assistance if there is no effective cooperation from Islamabad."

Cohen also recommended, "Our contacts with Pakistan must be broadened," and said that Washington had "made a strategic mistake in basing our entire Pakistan policy on President Musharraf," who, he said, "like his military predecessors, knows how to work the American 'account.'"

"We hurt ourselves by cutting off out contacts with Pakistani civil society, with leading politicians, and with a timid public diplomacy," he said.

Cohen said, "While the US should not do anything to undercut President Musharraf's position, it should do everything we can to ensure that he broadens his base."

He also said, "Any American military operations in Pakistan against the Taliban should be conducted jointly with the Pakistan army."

Cohen said, "The sovereignty issue runs as deep in Pakistan as it does in the United States and most other countries," and as such advised that "we should not risk further alienation by unilateral military action."

He also said that with the US-India nuclear agreement completed, it is imperative that "Washington should talk to New Delhi -- and Beijing -- about how to normalize Pakistani politics."

Cohen said, "A successful settlement on Kashmir with Musharraf or another leader would go a long way toward reducing the military pressure on Pakistan, allowing it to concentrate more resources on counterinsurgency in the Northwest Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

He said no way could Pakistan do these things "while preparing to fight a full scale war with India," and said that while "some in India will be tempted to 'bleed' Pakistan the way Islamabad bled India for years via its surrogates," such a policy by New Delhi "would be shortsighted, and increases the risk of still another India-Pakistan war."

"Washington, with its good ties to both countries," Cohen said, "Ought to propose a new strategic deal whereby the issues of the past are settled, enabling both countries to deal with the problems of the future."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC