This opinion also appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper.
With the staged re-election on Saturday of President Pervez Musharraf, America faces a stark choice: Do we support democracy and the rule of law in Pakistan, or do we back up a failing military dictator?
President George W. Bush seems to have chosen to back the dictator. This is a mistake that will damage our interests in South Asia and in the Muslim world.
Musharraf took power in a military coup in 1999. When we traveled with President Bill Clinton to South Asia in 2000, we made a four-hour stop in Islamabad, where Clinton insisted on speaking to the Pakistani people. He made a strong appeal for a return to democracy, less than half a year after Musharraf had deposed Pakistan’s elected – if not entirely effective – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Seven years later, the people of Pakistan, which is increasingly on the edge of chaos, deserve no less.
The stakes are critical. Pakistan is the epicenter of the most dangerous corner of the world, where terrorism, nuclear weapons, war, narcotics and dictators come together. Since 9/11, we have looked to Musharraf to be the edge of our spear against Al Qaeda and have handsomely rewarded him with over $10 billion in aid. But Al Qaeda is stronger than ever.
In the last six months Musharraf has alienated the majority of Pakistanis by trying to pack the Supreme Court and by his temporizing in handling Islamic extremism in the capital. Recent polls show his approval rate has dropped precipitously. Now he has refused to let Sharif return to the country, despite a Supreme Court ruling that said Nawaz should be allowed home, and he has orchestrated his re-election by a Parliament chosen in a rigged election five years ago.
The Bush administration has been notably quiet about all this. It has demurred from demanding that the rule of law be respected and has instead put its arm around the dictator. It has preferred back-room deals to free and fair elections, even colluding with the Saudis to again exile Sharif. This despite the fact that Pakistan has become a haven for the Taliban, which is killing NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
A recent study shows that 80 percent of the suicide bombers who attack NATO come from training camps in Pakistan. Five years ago there were two suicide attacks in the country, this year there have been over 100, a 70 percent increase from last year. And in those Taliban camps lurk Osama bin Laden and his gang.
Thanks to the internal crisis in Pakistan, bin Laden’s space to operate in South Asia is growing. His freedom to operate was underscored in his message last month urging a jihad to overthrow Musharraf. He is not cowering “impotently” in a cave; rather he clearly has access to a sophisticated media apparatus that has tripled its output of messages in the last year.
All too often, America has forsaken its long-term interests and, worse, its values in Pakistan and chosen the short-term convenience of backing military dictators. These dictators have failed to develop the country and have undermined its democratic institutions. Consequently, today only 15 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable opinion of America and over 70 percent fear an American attack.
Some say Musharraf is all that keeps Pakistan from an Islamic takeover. Musharraf used that line with Clinton in 2000, but Clinton didn’t buy it then and we should not buy it now. Pakistan’s democratic institutions and politicians are far from perfect. Whose are? But they should be given the opportunity to address their country’s problems. Sharif and Benazir Bhutto should be allowed to compete at home, and face trial if accused of crimes, not deported. Free and fair elections will produce a secular government that would have the legitimacy to tackle extremism. Every election in Pakistan’s history shows the Islamists are a small minority and the more-secular parties are the majority.
Democracies are always more troublesome partners because they listen to their own people. A secular government in Pakistan will battle extremism and bin Laden for its own self-interests, not ours. It is time for the Pakistani Army to return to its barracks and for us to have confidence in the people of Pakistan.