Pakistan: US ally, US dilemma
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has doggedly made the case to Washington that he is the finger in the dike holding back a wave of Islamic extremism that could again reach America's shores.Skip to next paragraph
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Having successfully argued his own indispensability, General Musharraf has reaped billions of dollars in economic aid and arms sales – while encountering little challenge from Washington over his backsliding from steps toward democratic rule.
But now it is political protest, fueled by Musharraf's steps to consolidate and extend his power, that is washing over Pakistan. And that is presenting the US with a classic dilemma of the war on terrorism: Does a key leader's security value outweigh his authoritarian practices, and when does democratic rule become the greater guarantor of security?
Earlier this month, Musharraf suspended the country's Supreme Court chief justice. Ever since, Pakistan's middle classes – ironically one of the chief beneficiaries of the military leader's eight-year rule – have taken to the streets. Also fueling the uproar are suspicions that Musharraf is paving the way to another term as both president and chief military leader.
The protests are prompting concern, both in Pakistan and the US, that pent-up political frustrations and social stagnation threaten the stability of a key American ally at least as much as Islamic extremism in the country's less-advanced regions.
"For too long, we've heard that the only alternative to Musharraf is something worse. But the fact is we don't need him if he doesn't move towards a civilianized government with broadened representation of Pakistan's people," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program of the Center for International Policy in Washington. The lack of political reform and civilian rule has exacerbated divisions, he says, "and the more polarized Pakistan is, the more unstable it's going to be."
While no one expects the social unrest to cause Musharraf's imminent demise, many observers do see the coming months as crucial to Pakistan's direction.
"This is not just a flare-up. It is reflective of a broader discontent about the failure of the Musharraf regime to take concrete steps to restore civilian rule," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for south Asian affairs. "With elections on the horizon, this could be an important turning point."
Musharraf cited "abuse of power" when he suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry on March 9, and many Pakistanis agreed – with the charge at least, though they attached it to the president himself. Mr. Chaudhry had taken the government to task over hundreds of disappearances of Pakistanis, some suspected Islamic extremists but others human rights activists and representatives of ethnic minority populations.
Perhaps more telling for many Pakistanis, Chaudhry had also expressed his view that it was not legal under the Constitution for Musharraf to seek another presidential term while remaining the Army chief. In addition, he had said publicly that he anticipated a number of ways in which the issue could come before him.
Such open threats to the continued reign of Pakistan's military became intolerable, says Mr. Harrison. "The military establishment is deeply involved in a wide range of business in the country, and they have a big stake in staying in power," he says.