On November 3, Pakistan strongman and Bush ally Pervez Musharraf suspended that country's constitution, arrested Ifitkhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and shut down all television stations not run by the state. In a statement straight out of Bizzaro World, Musharraf cited the need to "preserve the democratic transition" as his justification.
Already, civil unrest, in response to Musharraf's heavy hand, has led to violence and hundreds of arrests. And the fragmented opposition to Musharraf is starting to coalesce. Chaudhry, who somehow gained access to a cell phone while in custody, called for massive demonstrations. And former Prime Minister, and recent political exile Benazir Bhutto (currently under house arrest) vowed to join the protests herself, with all of her supporters.
The wild card in the whole mess is the Pakistani military. In the past, they have been loyal to Musharraf. He has delivered for them in the form of American dollars which the Bush administration has forked over in the name of "fighting terrorism." But, on the other hand, Musharraf humiliated the military by forcing them into a fight for which they were not trained or prepared in northwest Pakistan as an offensive against al Qaeda. That foray ended in a humiliating concession, and undoubtedly hurt Musharraf's standing with the military.
The most frightening aspect of these developments is this: the United States has almost no leverage in affecting the outcome of this crisis. Poor, overwhelmed and underwhelming Condoleeza Rice has been desperately trying to prevent a Turkish invasion of Iraq, and, even though experts have seen this crisis coming for months (according to the Brookings Institute's Stephen Cohen), she seemed to be caught flat-footed. Rice has tut-tutted at Musharraf's strong arm tactics, saying she is "disappointed," but there are really no options available. American diplomatic capital in the region has already been exhausted trying to manage the disaster in Iraq, prop up the Karzai regime in Afghanistan, and pressure Iran on the nuclear power issue. In fact, Musharraf has been probably the most reliable ally up to this point.
Quoting Mr. Cohen from a discussion with PBS' Margaret Warner:
Well, we're riding a tiger, and we're trying to tell the tiger, "Go this direction and that direction," not much leverage. In a sense, we can throw a piece of meat here or there, but that tiger is going to go whichever way it wants, and the tiger is going to pursue its own interest. I don't think we have much leverage. We can play around with the aid. We can offer, perhaps, more economic and educational aid. We can make some of the military conditional. I think we should do that. That would be trying to influence Musharraf around the margins, but basically we're stuck with him, and he's stuck with us.It would be unfair to saddle the Bush administration with all of the responsibility for our impotence. Although Bush exacerbated the situation with his cowboy foreign policy, US policy toward Pakistan has long been neglected for the sake of convenience. Let's face it: America loves a strongman (as long as he is our strongman). But now, we are faced with a hair-raising crisis that has huge implications for us as a nation, and the most we can do is protest lamely and keep our fingers crossed.
One can only imagine that India's military is on high alert at this very moment. After all, India and Pakistan have fought 3 wars in the last 60 years and both countries have nuclear weapons.
Iran, of course, will be watching the situation with interest and concern; an unstable Pakistan on Iran's eastern frontier could not be viewed as a positive development, but the shift of international focus, away from Iran, could provide her with certain opportunities.
This is also true for Turkey, which is still mulling its Iraqi incursion.
Hapless Hamid Karzai, forgotten in the imbroglio, can only sit in his office in Kabul and hope for the best.
And then, there is China, that shares a ~300 mile border with Pakistan. China has probably the least at stake, and the most to gain. Pakistan holds China's ancient rival, India, in check, and continues to be a diplomatic liability to the United States. And Chinese leverage in the crisis is substantial, being a nominal ally of Pakistan.
Make no mistake: this is a full-blown global crisis. A few miscalculations or misinterpretations could lead to any number of horrifying events.
Here's a random doomsday scenario: Musharraf forsakes restraint completely and starts shooting people down in the streets. This leads to rogue elements of the Pakistani military declaring for the opposition, which in turn leads to a civil war between forces loyal to Musharraf and "constitutional" forces. India seizes the opportunity, and invades the Pakistani held portions of Kashmir. Turkey takes advantage of the chaos and rolls into Kurdish Iraq. Iran suddenly invades southern Iraq to "reunite" the Shiites of Basra with their Persian brethren. The Taliban strikes at Kabul and executes Karzai and his cabinet. China warns off India and mobilizes on its Indian border. Isreal strikes at Syria. Condi Rice bursts into tears on Meet the Press, and US troops hunker down around the Green Zone in Bagdad.
Guess what, everybody? It's World War III!