During the presidential primaries, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got a lot of grief about his lack of foreign policy experience. Yet writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Huckabee made a perceptive comment about the lame U.S. response to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's increasingly autocratic behavior.
"It became clear,'' Huckabee wrote, "that we had no Pakistan policy, only a Musharraf policy.''
As Huckabee so succinctly put it, the Bush administration threw its lot in with an unpopular military dictator who proved unable or unwilling to address one of the biggest security threats to the world today: the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas next to Afghanistan.
Musharraf is finally out of the picture — gone to forced retirement in his brand-new mansion — but the United States is still at a loss over how to deal with a nuclear-armed country growing more violent and unstable by the day.
In backing Musharraf for so long, "the United States failed to build up workable alliances with a wider set of political parties and civil society groups in Pakistan, with the result that it finds itself in a position where it faces a climate of intense anti-Americanism,'' says Dr. Farzana Shaikh, director of the Pakistani study group at London's Chatham House.
Last weekend, in what Pakistanis called their own Sept. 11, a suicide truck bomb killed 53 people at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, long considered a haven for Westerners (this reporter included) and the Pakistani elite. The attack was widely seen as a warning to the United States and to Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, who just a few hours earlier had vowed to root out militants in the tribal areas. (Zardari's wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed in an attack in December.)
One of the many disturbing aspects of the Marriott bombing is how such a massive attack could have been plotted and staged in the heavily guarded capital without the knowledge of Pakistan's crack Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
"Coming so quickly in the wake of the bombing of the Indian Embassy (in Afghanistan), which the Pakistani security and intelligence services have been implicated in, it has raised questions in the minds of many,'' Shaikh says.
The ISI has long had close ties to Islamic militants. It supports them in Pakistan's struggle with archrival India over the disputed province of Kashmir, and it helped fund and train the Taliban during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Since Sept. 11, the Taliban and al-Qaida have regrouped in Pakistan's tribal areas, launching deadly forays into Afghanistan and prompting President Bush to authorize cross-border U.S. military strikes without Pakistan's permission.
But that is a dangerous strategy. On Thursday, Pakistani forces fired at U.S. helicopters that had flown into their territory. Such incursions have angered even moderate Pakistanis and had Zardari warning the U.N. General Assembly that Pakistan would not allow any violations of its sovereignty.
In their approaches to the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaida, Bush and Zardari are reacting to domestic political pressures. The lame-duck U.S. president, who most Americans think is doing a poor job, hopes to claim some kind of foreign policy success before he leaves office. And Zardari, who rose to power in a U.S.-brokered deal, has to talk tough to show Pakistanis that he is not a stooge of the Americans.
Both sides need to rethink their positions.
"The United States must exercise what I call strategic patience,'' Shaikh says. "The Bush administration must be made to understand that its long-term objectives would almost certainly be compromised by President Bush's go-it-alone approach in the tribal regions.''
Zardari, in the meantime, must reach out to other political parties if he hopes to build a national consensus that it is in Pakistan's best interest to fight Islamic extremism.
"So far, the U.S. and Pakistan are pursuing two mutually opposed goals,'' Shaikh says. "Pakistan desperately wants peace within its own borders, while the United States is acting in a manner that Pakistanis believe is designed to secure peace in Afghanistan at the expense of peace in Pakistan.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]