The events of the past four months have raised serious doubts about Pakistan's capacity to achieve progress in the war on terror and manage a smooth transition to civilian democratic governance simultaneously. This summer's crises--the storming of Islamabad's Red Mosque, clashes with militants along Afghanistan's border, the dismissal and reinstatement of Pakistan's chief justice, and the recent deportation of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif--have also raised concerns about Washington's ability to stand by Pakistan as a firm but supportive partner. The crucial question is not whether to pursue security or democracy in Pakistan, but how the United States might realistically seek both at the same time.

One of the central assumptions underpinning my argument for closer U.S.-Pakistani relations was the idea that the Pakistani army and intelligence services are now open to a new strategic mindset. In particular, I suggested that they are beginning to see their longstanding ties to militant Islamist groups as dangerous liabilities, rather than as assets for projecting power in the region. At the same time, they may be slowly recognizing the United States as a viable new ally. Only after making this shift will Pakistan's security forces, from the rank-and-file on up, be motivated to fight al Qaeda and other terrorists.

On July 10, after a siege of several months, Pakistan's security forces stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque, leaving at least 100 people dead. In a somber address to the nation, President Pervez Musharraf declared that the terrorists within the mosque compound had "challenged the government's writ as a whole," by seeking to introduce a Taliban-style legal system into the heart of Pakistan's capital city. His message was a clear articulation of the new strategic outlook: Pakistan's Islamist militants could no longer be viewed as pliant tools, but must instead be confronted as a threat to the nation.

Musharraf then backed his words with a renewed military offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Unfortunately, the militants responded with a series of deadly and demoralizing suicide attacks throughout the country and a unilateral withdrawal from the ceasefire "deals" they had struck with the Pakistani government. In late August, hundreds of Pakistani troops were reportedly taken prisoner by an extremely small contingent of Taliban fighters--an unprecedented event in Pakistani history. And just last week, an attack on the elite Special Services Group in the commandos' mess hall left 15 soldiers dead. There is strong evidence that the army is deeply shaken and that at least some officers are looking for ways to sidestep a fight that they still do not see as their own.

Facing this apparent crisis of confidence, Pakistan has received precious little encouragement from the United States. Over the summer, Pakistanis were treated to a series of highly publicized statements--most famously by Senator Barack Obama--suggesting that the United States should take unilateral action against militants inside Pakistan if Musharraf's government proves unwilling or unable to do the job. Whether or not the United States might someday seize the opportunity to take a clear shot at Osama bin Laden is beside the point. Threatening Pakistani sovereignty to play out a hypothetical scenario was bad diplomacy. It undermined Pakistan's trust in the United States at a sensitive time.

On the political front, pre-election jockeying for power accelerated and took a few surprising turns. Musharraf compounded his blunder of suspending Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry with a series of clumsy attempts to manage the fallout, each backfiring worse than the last. Musharraf's regime succeeded in harassing the media, stirring up bloody ethnic tensions in Karachi, and alienating Pakistan's lawyers as well as a wide cross-section of moderate opinion leaders. Washington's reaction did not help. The U.S. government's quiet acceptance of Chaudhry's suspension gave Pakistanis no reason to believe that the United States was sincere in promoting either the rule of law or judicial independence in Pakistan.

In the end, Musharraf lost popular support and failed in his bid to remove the chief justice. Musharraf's political rivals quickly seized the opening offered by a more independent, even oppositional, judiciary. Foremost among these rivals, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appealed the terms of his ten-year exile, won the right to return to Pakistan, and staged a dramatic comeback attempt on September 10. In preparation, government security forces put Islamabad on lockdown and jailed thousands of Sharif's party organizers around the country. Upon landing, Sharif was quickly bundled up and "re-exiled" to Saudi Arabia to live under the watchful eye of the royal family.

The forceful steps that Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), took against Sharif merely confirmed a widely-held belief that the party has failed to win the popular support needed to stave off even a recycled and discredited politician. In recent months, the prospect of Sharif's return to politics became a rallying point for more conservative political parties--including Islamists. Although his deportation may be a setback for those advocating a completely level electoral playing field, it may also have served the interests of moderates and progressives seeking to marginalize Pakistan's extreme right.

The other former prime minister from the 1990s, Benazir Bhutto, has taken a different approach in her summer power play. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party still commands significant grass-roots support, but she has sought to negotiate her way into Pakistan by sealing a deal with Musharraf that would pave the way for her return to the prime minister's office. The deep mutual distrust between Bhutto and Musharraf, combined with the opposition of the conservative PML-Q leadership, who would lose power in such an arrangement, has until now prevented a deal.

Given the paucity of other viable options, Washington should support such a power-sharing agreement in order to facilitate freer and fairer national elections this fall. The United States should also continue to deliver robust military and diplomatic support to the Pakistani army.

If the United States plays its cards correctly over the next six months, Pakistan could become an even more stable U.S. partner in the war on terror; Islamabad's military leadership could be complemented by a cast of popularly elected civilians; and the foundations could be laid for a transition to sustainable democratic governance.

The alternative--allowing Musharraf and the PML-Q to run rigged elections and silence opponents--will only lead to harsher authoritarianism. Such a strategy would very clearly place Musharraf and the United States on one side, unifying the spectrum of Pakistan's political opposition--from progressives to Islamists--on the other. The balance would eventually tip, leaving Washington with few friends in Islamabad, and little hope of advancing U.S. interests, either in terms of democracy promotion or counter-terrorism.

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  • Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff from 2003 to 2007.
  • More By Daniel Markey