Raleigh News & Observer

Democracy, Not Weapons, Should Drive U.S.-Pakistan Agenda

Al-Qaida's safe haven in Pakistan, having grown steadily larger under a military dictatorship in the last few years, now poses the No. 1 threat to America. The challenge for the next U.S. president will be to work with Pakistanis on building stability and democracy.

Today Pakistan is in the midst of a complicated transition from the military rule of Pervez Musharraf to what many Pakistanis hope will be democracy. This process is extremely fragile, and the future of Pakistan's government - perhaps along with the very survival of the state - is uncertain.

Violence has become a dominant feature there, most notably in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December, probably by al-Qaida's allies. Pakistan's lack of stability reflects the nation's underdeveloped conditions, as more than half of Pakistanis live in grinding poverty and most women are illiterate.

Still, unlike many other Muslim states, Pakistan offers political parties that have strong voter support, a history of elections (although all have been riddled with controversy), and a tradition of functioning secular institutions and civil society.

The United States has failed democratic forces in Pakistan. We have a bipartisan history of backing Pakistan's military dictators since its creation as a Muslim state after World War II. Even while Musharraf was clearly losing popular support in the run-up to the February 2008 elections, the administration still touted him as "the indispensable man" of Pakistan.

The cost of the Bush administration's policy has been the alienation of most Pakistanis from the United States and our interests. Polls now show Pakistani approval of America at record lows. In the eyes of too many Pakistanis, the war against jihadis in the nation's western badlands is Bush's war, not their own.

The next president should try to change the agenda with Pakistan and recast Pakistani visions of America. He or she must work to persuade the Pakistani people that America supports democracy in their country, that America can be a long-term and reliable ally, and that the struggle against al-Qaida and its allies is their war as well as ours.

Al-Qaida may well plan to strike either before the November elections in the United States or soon after the inauguration of a new U.S. president. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or unilateral option available. We need substantially greater Pakistani cooperation in the war against al-Qaida and its allies in the badlands of South Asia.

We must find a way to embrace the new Pakistani leadership and persuade it to work with us. This will be a difficult undertaking, given the bad blood the Bush team has created and the legacy of the last half century.

The next administration should engage in new diplomacy to normalize Pakistan's borders with India and Afghanistan, and launch new aid programs, both economic and military. Our public posture should be one of full support for the democratically elected leadership. We should no longer stand by Musharraf. We should embrace the Pakistani peoples' choices, despite their shortcomings.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., for instance, has proposed several useful ideas, including a "democracy bonus" that would increase the aid level automatically every year the president certifies that Pakistan is a democracy. Besides implementing a democracy bonus, the next president should organize a donors' conference to obtain help from other key friends of Pakistan, including Saudi Arabia, the EU and China.

For 25 years the United States sought to keep Pakistan from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Ultimately, that effort failed. We now have a strong interest in ensuring the security of the weapons stockpile Pakistan is developing - somewhere between 50 and 200 bombs - which are undoubtedly al-Qaida's top targets.

The next president should greatly intensify efforts to ensure the security of Pakistan's weapons arsenal. He should avoid any reckless talk about using unilateral means to secure the Pakistani systems, as we do not know where the warheads are stored and cannot "seize" them without provoking war.

In dealing with Pakistan, the next president must go beyond threats and sanctions, beyond commando raids and half-hearted intelligence cooperation, beyond poorly directed aid and aircraft sales. It is time to come to grips with what motivates Pakistan's behavior. It is time to help Pakistan find peace with its neighbors and with itself through democracy.