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Six Questions for Barney Rubin on the Current Crisis in Pakistan


The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has quickly brought the chaotic situation in Pakistan back in the public’s eye. To help understand the developments out of Pakistan and to help put the whole situation in a better policy perspective from an American point of view, I interviewed Dr. Barnett Rubin, one of the nation’s premier experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rubin, the author of eight books, is currently Director of Studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He recently live-blogged the military crackdown from Islamabad, providing some of the best insights available from the scene of the action.

1. In your article in today’s ‘Wall Street Journal’, ‘The Musharraf Problem,’ you argue that al Qaeda (and their local allies, the Pakistani Taliban) were probably responsible for the attack on Benazir Bhutto. True, they laid claim, but then they’ve done this on many occasions in which analysts have doubted it. What convinces you that this was an al Qaeda operation?

To attribute the killing to the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda does not absolve the Pakistan military of all responsibility. President (then General) Musharraf refused to allow an international inquiry into the October 18 attack on Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade in Karachi, and he did not provide a level of security appropriate to a leader under this degree of threat. In addition, the Pakistani military built up the Taliban and al-Qaeda infrastructure for many years to pursue foreign policy objectives – originally with the help and support of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Since 2001 its efforts against the Taliban have been half-hearted and cosmetic, as it continues to use the Afghan Taliban as leverage for Pakistani interests in Afghanistan. And some retired military officers are vocal supporters of al-Qaida and Taliban. So it is not at all out of the question that some serving officers are as well and may provide some assistance. Certainly that is a widespread suspicion in Pakistan.

But there has been a very pronounced escalation in serious terrorist attacks by the Pakistani Taliban backed by al-Qaida since the government attack on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July. By the way, in Islamabad people told me that the Red Mosque was built as the mosque for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, the main intelligence and covert operations body, whose headquarters is only a couple of blocks away. In the U.S. press bombings in Pakistan are usually presented as acts of “terrorism” directed against individuals. But there is a political strategy behind the activities of the Pakistani Taliban, as people explained to me in Pakistan and as I tried to summarize in my article. The Pakistani Taliban also coordinate much more closely with al-Qaida than do the Afghan Taliban. In fact the Pakistani Taliban largely formed as a protection force for the al-Qaida leadership that escaped into Pakistan in December 2001, while the US military had already been tasked with planning for Iraq rather than finishing the work in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In my article I tried to explain that al-Qaida is backing a serious local insurgent movement in northwestern Pakistan, and that this movement is essential to preserve al-Qaida’s main sanctuary. I am not a forensic specialist, but of course the method was also typical of al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban: suicide bombing. There was one addition – the shots apparently fired at Bhutto before the bomb, and, perhaps, shots also fired at the other main political party leader, Nawaz Sharif, which missed their target. Some claim that such firing is not typical of al-Qaida and the Taliban and points to the Army. Whoever they were, the assassins apparently decided not to risk failure as on October 18 where several very powerful bombs killed nearly 150 people (some say more) but missed their main target, Benazir Bhutto.

2. Bhutto was according to recent public opinion polls the most popular politician in the country, but also someone who evoked ferocious hatred. How does her disappearance change the country’s political landscape? Many observers were anticipating that, with Benazir Bhutto at its lead, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would emerge as the nation’s strongest political force. What happens without Benazir Bhutto?

Bhutto’s strength was also her weakness. She benefitted from the combined charisma of a powerful family and a powerful personality. She was the exiled daughter of a martyr – her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was also prime minister and was executed by the regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1979. Like other women leaders in South Asia from such families, she stood above others as a combination of saint and warrior–she was not one among colleagues. So she had a more intense personal following than any other politician, but her party was run on very personalist lines and does not have clear rules for choosing a successor by democratic means. There is no obvious family successor, either–her mother is too old, her husband is too corrupt, her brothers were also killed, probably by the Pakistani military, and her children are too young. There are many well qualified leaders in the PPP, but there is no unquestioned successor with charisma. Hence there is the potential for very damaging internal struggles in the PPP, which is quite a disparate party.

Leaderhip struggles in the PPP could lead to defections, strengthening Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N or even Musharraf’s PML-Q. But the main issue, as always, is what happens to the military? The main effect will be the collapse of Musharraf’s fading support. From what I am hearing, it seems that he will either go quietly or, if he hangs on tenaciously, may provoke massive street protests. These may come soon if he tries to go ahead with his plans for a rigged election. Then, as usual, the arbiter will be the military, which Musharraf no longer heads. The Army Chief of Staff and the Corps Commanders are Musharraf’s most important if not sole support base (outside of Washington). If they decide he has to go, he will have to go. Then the military could, if it wanted to, try to broker a unity government and fair elections. Every time in the past I have tried to be optimistic about Pakistan, I have suffered the consequences, so I don’t want to predict this will happen.

3. Pakistan has the “Islamic bomb.” Pakistan has been the world’s principal source for nuclear proliferation. If the country comes apart at the seams, what happens with the Pakistani nuclear arsenal?

The Pakistan military has the same degree of religious authority as the U.S. military, though less civilian control. I hope that doesn’t sound too scary.

I do have some good contacts in Islamabad, but nobody has told me anything about how the nuclear weapons and materials are stored. Maybe someone can post a comment on my blog. . . U.S. officials whom I have attempted to press on this have at least tried to convey a high degree of confidence in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear materials and weapons. Apparently they are not stored somewhere that a bunch of rioters can find them and parade around Rawalpindi with a thermonuclear warhead. It is also unlikely that a group of foraging Taliban might stumble upon an unguarded warehouse full of enriched uranium or plutonium. In fact no civilian can get anywhere near them, except maybe President Musharraf, who is now a civilian and who transferred control of nuclear weapons to the president as one of his last acts as Army Chief of Staff. So the main issue is the chain of command of the military. If it stays intact, then the nuclear weapons and materials are probably safe. So far the Pakistani chain of command has not been broken. Despite all of its political games and self-enrichment schemes, the Pakistan military is aware that it is facing India, a huge country with eight times the population and far more resources of every description than Pakistan has, not to mention nuclear weapons. So generals and colonels do not go around trying to oust each other. The main risk would be the fracture of the top command on political lines, leaving the ranks unsure whose orders to follow. That is very unlikely, but no more unlikely than a lot of other things that have already happened. In that case, I suppose (with no information) that some secret Pentagon Plan would be activated. If it were executed as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would have nothing to worry about.

4. Very serious doubts have been expressed about the integrity of the elections process in Pakistan, particularly as concerns fair access to media. Are the United States and other Western powers doing what they can and should do to promote fair and free elections in Pakistan?

I don’t think access to media is the main problem. The main problem is that there is a highly developed system for calibrating election results in Pakistan, and Dawn, which is more or less Pakistan’s New York Times, has already published what it claims are the planned results. This is much more efficient that just holding all the primaries early. Amazingly, Musharraf’s party, the PML-Q was going to get the most seats, followed by the PPP, and the Islamist parties would get a slice that would make them essential to deal making to form a government. I was able to watch this system in action as an election observer in 1990, when the military decided to oust Benazir Bhutto. Husain Haqqani, whose article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal should be required reading, has described that as an “ISI-managed election.” The system of rigging involves, among other things, manipulations to keep down turnout, and an effective intelligence operation using the ISI and the district administration to ascertain how many ballots are needed to obtain the required results in key constituencies. These ballots, already printed, filled out, and prepared, are then added to those transported from pollng places for the final count. There are additional techniques too, as it is always important to have redundancy in vital systems. In 1990 foreign election observers had insufficient experience to appreciate what was going on. They should be better prepared this time.

Unfortunately the dominant attitude in the Bush administration about electoral fairness in Pakistan seems to be to chuckle and ask if there was ever a fair election in Pakistan. (I speak from personal experience.) They have provided the Electoral Commission with computers, which I understand have not yet been plugged in. They wanted elctions to legitimate Musharraf, President Bush’s friend and partner in the War on Terror. I am sure they are now re-examining their options.

5. Benazir Bhutto criticized Musharraf aggressively over his failure to clamp down on armed insurrection in the Northwest Frontier Province. She appears to have settled on this as a significant campaign issue, and it seems to have resonated with middle class voters in Pakistan, but it also lined up well with Washington’s new approach to Pakistan. Thus Benazir Bhutto was emerging as an obvious force for America to nurture in Pakistan. With Ms. Bhutto out of the picture, do you expect to see a tilt back to a Musharraf policy, as opposed to a Pakistan policy?

I don’t think that is possible. Musharraf’s approval rating is now about half of Bush’s and going down. Some people–like Juan Cole in Salon –- are comparing him to the Shah of Iran. He is just as isolated, but in Pakistan revolution is not the only alternative. There is a constitutional system that could work, if it were allowed to do so.

I would not call the Pakistani Taliban an armed insurrection. They do not have a mass base of popular support. People are terrified of them. But the military has never explained to its people or soldiers why they should suddenly turn on the group they had always supported in Afghanistan, and that they continue to portray as representatives of Pashtuns fighting against foreign invaders. Who are the foreign invaders in Charsadda or Swat? Punjabis?

6. You write that the struggle now rocking Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, is the principal source of security threats to the U.S. and its allies. But the American security and intelligence establishments, and the American media, maintain a monomaniacal focus on Iraq. Why are they wrong?

From my personal observation, I think there is a lot of discontent among military and security professionals in the U.S. government about the focus on Iraq. You would be surprised how much of the stuff that I write comes from flag officers (or maybe not, since you have the same experience on detention issues). Recently I discussed with one of them the testimony of Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the House Armed Services Committee. Mullen said (I am quoting from memory) that Afghanistan is an “economy of force operation,” that “In Iraq we do what we must, in Afghanistan we do what we can.” I raised this with a general I know. His reply was that Mullen was speaking as a professional stating policy as it is, not as he wished it to be. For the media, the story is where the soldiers are, and there are more American soldiers in Iraq. The story is also what the administration says, and the administration talks about Iraq (and Iran). The White House website home page does not even have a link to issues on Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Why the administration did this remains something of a mystery, though in Pakistan people are quite convinced they understand it. Some of my hosts there gave me a copy of the report of the Project for a New American Century from 1999 and told me that Cheney and company were executing this plan, which had nothing to do with terrorism.

If the main threat is the kind of terrorism that the US experienced on 9/11, then the administration has gone about it in a totally wrong way. The problem is not “terrorism” or Islamist extremism. Hamas and Hizbullah are no more interested in attacking unserere beliebte Heimat than are the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (which I think invented suicide bombing) or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Al-Qaida’s headquarters used to be in Afghanistan and now is in Pakistan. Their main source of recruitment is Western Europe. So what are we doing in Iraq?

There is another kind of argument that might justify a focus on Iraq: it is possible that 9/11 type terrorism is not in fact the major threat we face. Maybe al-Qaida got lucky once and could never do it again. Maybe they could be contained with a stable government in Afghanistan and some smart intelligence and police work, and the real threats are the traditional ones of access to resources, managing changes in power (the rise of China, recovery of Russia), nuclear proliferation, etc. One could manufacture a case for Iraq by arguing that focusing on al-Qaida is a diversion from the real struggle – control over fossil fuel resources, where the main competitors are China and Russia. But the administration’s policy in Iraq makes no sense from a balance of power perspective. We ousted a Sunni Arab secular nationalist tyrant and replaced him with an elected government dominated by Iranian trained militias. Then we complained that Iran has somehow infiltrated Iraq and support Sunni Arab secular nationalist militias to fight Sunni Arab Salafi militias–but our new allies, the same people as our old enemies, don’t recognize our new Shi’a friends–who aren’t really our friends because they are supported by Iran, which we apparently did not notice for a few years. Now they are talking about a Sunni response to the so-called Shia Crescent–the front line of which would run right down the middle of Baghdad, which the surge is supposed to secure. And since when was stirring up sectarian conflict a good strategy for stabilizing anything?

I might also add, that the excessive reliance on the military regime in Pakistan, which is part of what created this mess, resulted from the administration’s refusal to continue the partnership it had with Iran in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan we ousted a Pakistani client regime, the Taliban, and helped put in power a coalition in which the most important element was the Iranian supported Northern Alliance. And then we announced that Pakistan was our most important non-NATO ally and Iran was a member of the Axis of Evil. No wonder people in the region don’t think the U.S. invaded Afghanistan because of terrorism. Even today, the Bush administration could get much more leverage with Musharraf if it started an opening toward Iran that showed there was an alternative. But that is off the table.

In any case, the last thing the administration wants to do is explain that we do not really need to be so afraid of terrorists. That is the one thread that ties all their policies together.

I remember in 1988 a Soviet scholar wrote an article in which he said that the main lesson of Afghanistan was that military power could accomplish only limited objectives. It was necessary to use diplomacy and other forms of what we now call “soft power.” Why do we have to keep learning the same lessons?


Barney Rubin’s observations on Afghanistan, Pakistan and national security issues generally appear at his blogspot, Informed Comment Global Affairs, which you should bookmark if you have not already done so. His latest book, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan can be purchased here.

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