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Musharraf Is Not The Answer

By Pierre Atlas

The brutal suicide attack that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and dozens of supporters in Rawalpindi on December 27 has made Pakistan's already unstable political situation even more volatile. As Washington seeks to encourage calm and stability--as well as democratization--in Pakistan, it might be tempted to latch on even more tightly to President Pervez Musharraf. That would be a mistake.

Musharraf has long been viewed as a key US ally in the "war on terror." He convinced the Bush administration that he was the leader most able to fight al-Qaida in Waziristan, to keep Pakistan's radical Islamists at bay and to support our efforts in Afghanistan. For years, the fear that Pakistan--the world's second largest Muslim country and a nuclear-armed state--could be overrun by Islamists trumped American qualms about Musharraf's heavy-handedness and his demonstrated incompetence.

Jerrold D. Green is senior advisor for the Middle East and South Asia at the RAND Corporation. "Musharraf is a vestige of a bygone era--the military junta," Green told me. "All of Pakistan's neighbors, even Iran," Green observed, "are more democratic than Pakistan." Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency in an election that was freer and fairer than anything Pakistan has seen in years, and war-torn Afghanistan has made greater strides toward democracy than has Pakistan under Musharraf's tenure.

All of Musharraf's anti-democratic acts since deposing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup in 1999--including his "state of emergency" decree in November--have been crass attempts to hold on to personal power. A hard-nosed realist might willingly turn a blind eye to such abuses if there's a payoff in the "war on terror." But Pakistan's president is not even an effective pro-American dictator.

The ex-general's record on fighting terrorism has always been mixed at best. The Taliban and al-Qaida have free reign on the Afghan border, despite the billions of dollars the US has pumped into Pakistan for "counter-terrorism" efforts. Over 600 Pakistanis have been killed in suicide bombings in the past six months--two of the most spectacular and bloody incidents occurring just in the past few days.

On December 21, a suicide bomber murdered 50 worshipers and wounded over 100 in a mosque during the Muslim holy day of Eid, in a failed attempt to assassinate a former interior minister. The Bhutto bombing occurred seven days later. As Pakistan's Mashriq newspaper put it, "The killing of Benazir is not only the worst failure of the security forces, but it has also strengthened the impression of a failed state."

"Musharraf has not demonstrated his competence on basic security," Green said. He couldn't protect Bhutto in Rawalpindi, a garrison city with a heavy army presence; he can't find (or won't tell us) bin Laden's location in Pakistan; and he won't give us access to A. Q. Khan, one of the world's most effective nuclear proliferators (whom Musharraf has feted as a national hero). "He's either incompetent or disingenuous," asserted the RAND scholar.

Condoleezza Rice brokered Bhutto's return to Pakistan last month after an 8-year exile, in part to counterbalance Musharraf, and in part to legitimize him. But now Bhutto's gone and we don't seem to have a Plan B. As US policy makers and politicians debate putting all our eggs in Musharraf's basket, they need to understand that Musharraf is as likely to cut a deal with radical Islamists as he is to crack down on them--perhaps even more so, since the former option might enable him to remain in power longer.

President Bush has called for Pakistan's elections to go forward, as scheduled, on January 8. This too would be a mistake. Nawaz Sharif has said his opposition party will boycott the elections if held on schedule, and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party will be in a 40-day mourning period and won't participate either. It was always feared that Musharraf would rig the results to suit his own purposes, and now, with Pakistan's single most popular politician dead and buried, the danger is that a highly questionable electoral process will solidify his unpopular hold on power.

"The country is too unstable for elections right now," says RAND's Jerry Green. "But if you want to strengthen Musharraf's hand, press for the election on January 8."

Musharraf is detested by most Pakistanis, he stands squarely against the democratic values the United States is trying to promote in the region, and he is a failed fighter against terrorism. We need to exert our influence, publicly and privately, to help ensure that when elections are held in Pakistan, they will be as free and fair as possible. And beyond the short-term election issue, we need to seriously reevaluate our support for Musharraf.

Relying on the authoritarian ex-general, says Green, "is an untenable political solution. Military dictatorships, common in the 20th Century, are no longer appropriate. Even the military dictatorship in Myanmar has backed down under pressure. Pakistan needs a different kind of leader for the 21st Century."

There is a core of moderate, even secular Muslim sentiment in Pakistan that has been alienated and outraged by our "ally" in Islamabad. These middle class and largely professional Pakistanis must be the real bulwark against Islamist extremism if Pakistan is ever to develop into a stable democracy.

Pakistan needs a strong and reliable military to keep a tight grip on its nuclear weapons. But it needs a political leadership whose primary concern is not simply maintaining power at any cost, and which can rally the millions of moderate Pakistanis to its side. This may prove too much to ask for, but one thing is certain: Musharraf does not fit the bill.

Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

Copyright 2007, Real Clear Politics


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