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Déjà Vu: Musharraf and the Shah

Posted by vmsalama on October 25, 2007

an article from PostGlobal (washingtonpost.com) from the great Gary Sick.  The Pakistan issue is the irony of ironies.  It is a breeding ground for terrorists and yet it is a major partner in the American-led “War on Terrorism.”  When do we stay “enough” and stop supporting despotic regimes that may only be contributing to the problem?

By Gary Sick

Last Sunday’s New York Times analysis, “In Pakistan Quandary, U.S. Reviews Stance,” fits so closely with a number of conversations that I have had over the past few weeks that it inspires a kind of déjà vu. It takes me back to the time when the Iranian revolution was brewing, when I was the desk officer for Iran on the National Security Council.

The ultimate reason for the U.S. policy failure at the time of the Iranian revolution was the fact that the U.S. had placed enormous trust and responsibility on the person of the shah of Iran. He — and not the country or people of Iran — was seen as the lynchpin of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf. Everything relied on him. There was no Plan B.

As a consequence, the U.S. strategy, endlessly mulled over, was that we had no choice except to support the shah; and this was fortified by the belief (or wishful thinking) that the shah would pull himself together and deal with the growing crisis before it was too late. By the time it became inescapably obvious that that was not going to happen, the situation was too far gone for anything to stop it.

This is a gross simplification, of course. (For more nuanced detail, see my 1985 account of the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, “All Fall Down.”) But in retrospect, this was the essence of the problem. We had placed all of our eggs in the shah’s basket; we had no visible alternative. So policy always tended to settle on More of the Same, fear of Rocking the Boat in a way that would undercut the shah, combined with much Wringing of Hands and Wishful Thinking.

Those policies were so unsuccessful that they gave rise to endless conspiracy theories among the Iranian elite (many of whom fled the country in hopes that someone else would defend their interests) that the Carter administration was in fact determined to replace the shah with Khomeini. Absurd as that appeared to those of us on the inside, it was an all too human attempt to square what they regarded as an omnipotent United States with a policy of neglect and error.

All of this comes to mind as I watch the situation in Pakistan. I am no expert on that country, but I see the U.S. locked in much the same kind of policy vise that bedeviled the U.S. in Iran. We have bet the farm on one man – in this case Pervez Musharraf — and we have no fall back position, no alternative strategy in the event that does not work.

Pakistan is far more dangerous than Iran was. If it should be taken over by Sunni radicals of a radical Islamist Talibanesque persuasion, the dangers are not that hard to imagine, even for a non-specialist. Pakistan is a nuclear state. I suppose that a radical Sunni takeover would be seen as an imminent threat by nuclear India; I know it would be seen that way in Iran, and Iran might well be persuaded to abandon its present slow-motion nuclear development, drop out of the NPT if necessary, and go for a bomb in the shortest time possible. That would set off other ripples of proliferation and possibly military reaction.

Pakistan is already a training center for international terrorism. That would only increase. Certainly a radical Islamist Pakistan would give Al-Qaeda and the Taliban an enormous boost in their operations in Afghanistan and beyond. Pakistan would constitute the kind of imminent terrorist/nuclear threat that we falsely ascribed to Saddam Hussein.

One of the obstacles to confronting the Iranian revolution at an early stage — regardless of whether or not that would have had any significant effect — was that no one had any good ideas to offer about what might be done. I certainly have no magic plan to offer about Pakistan.

Still, I think that avoiding the issue or sweeping it under the rug in hopes that it will get better on its own, is worse even than admitting that we have no solution to a problem that is confronted honestly.

The worst does not always happen, but in this region we do not have to look very far to find cases where it has. The parallels worry me.
Gary Sick is a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University and Executive Director of the Gulf/2000 Project.


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