Help Pakistanis Now or Risk Alienation

Pakistan’s elections last month offer a rare opportunity to turn around a failing state, defeat al-Qaida in its lair and build a modern democracy in a major Islamic country. Ironically this opportunity has emerged despite the resistance of the Bush administration, which has sought to keep Pakistan’s military dictator in power even as he has failed to fight the revival of al-Qaida in his country or to stabilize its descent into chaos. Now the U.S. should embrace the new leadership in Pakistan and provide concrete economic, diplomatic and military aid to this fledgling democracy.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf alienated his people last year by subverting the judiciary and trying to suppress civil society. He made only halfhearted efforts to fight al-Qaida while his intelligence service, the ISI, maintained connections with its allies: the Taliban and various Kashmiri groups.

The lawyers’ protest that resulted from his attack on the Supreme Court caught the imagination of the country. The February vote became a referendum on Musharraf, and, as his hated rival former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has put it, “the people of Pakistan have given their verdict, which has only one meaning: Goodbye, Musharraf” (Times of India, March 27). Musharraf’s “Kings” party and its Islamist allies were swept from power in a landslide. The Islamist fell from 56 seats to five in parliament and lost control of the regional parliament in their stronghold in the North West Frontier Province.

It was also a protest vote against President Bush’s blind support for Musharraf. Pakistanis deeply resent a decade of American backing a dictator. Bush’s continued endorsement of Musharraf after the elections and the efforts of our ambassador to persuade and pressure the winners to allow Musharraf to remain as president are further alienating Pakistanis. America’s already dismal approval rating in Pakistan is falling; we risk alienating a generation permanently.

Instead of using our diplomacy to keep Musharraf in power, the U.S. should let the new government and the Pakistani people decide his fate. Our focus should be on how to help the leadership elected last month rebuild the country. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware has proposed a multiyear, multibillion dollar economic aid program that would focus on educational reform and infrastructure development. Congress should fund this plan immediately.

U.S. diplomacy should help the new government with Pakistan’s eastern and western neighbors, India and Afghanistan. I met last month separately with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hamid Karzai and both stressed the need to deprive al-Qaida of its safe havens in Pakistan. New Delhi and Kabul both are concerned about the ISI’s troublemaking.

U.S. military aid should also be increased to help a genuine fight against terrorism. It should be conditioned on the return of the army to its barracks for good, an end to its interference in the politics of the nation, and the end to ISI flirtation with terrorists of all kinds.

The newly elected Pakistani leadership is far from perfect. Coalition government is never easy and corruption charges surround many of the winners. Pakistanis are mad at America and their politicians will have to address that anger. But they enjoy the legitimacy of electoral victory. Rather than highlighting their weaknesses, America should help them succeed. This may be the last chance to help Pakistan avoid becoming the first weapon failed state with nuclear weapons.