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Could Pakistan fall to extremists?

Analysts say Washington's fears that Islamic extremists will take control of Pakistan are overblown.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2007

Islamabad, Pakistan

The US Congressional hearing was marked by frustration. The topic was whether Pakistan was honoring its promises to help the United States fight terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation.

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Yet at the outset, before criticism of what one administration official has called America's greatest ally in the war on terror mounted, the committee chairman made a sobering statement.

"US policy widely attempts to work with and pressure the Pakistan government ... but not to a destabilizing degree," said Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California during the May 2006 hearing. "The possibility of radical Islamists seizing control of Pakistan's government and nuclear arsenal is a serious concern."

This fear of nuclear-armed mullahs has played a motivating role in American policy toward Pakistan since Sept. 11, experts say. It has led the Bush administration to back a military ruler seen to be strong and supportive of American interests, despite the fact that he overthrew a democratically elected government.

Yet on the ground in Pakistan – and increasingly in the halls of Washington – this fear is seen to be specious. The trends of past election returns, combined with the strength of the largely secular military, suggest that it is extremely unlikely that religious extremists could ever come to power in Pakistan.

"It's hogwash," says Seth Jones, an antiterror analyst at the RAND Corp., a strategic consultancy in Arlington, Va.

The debate comes at a particularly sensitive time. Since the controversial sacking of Pakistan's Supreme Court chief justice on March 9, widespread street protests have left President Pervez Musharraf's regime at its most vulnerable since it seized power in 1999.

Pakistan's history of religious moderation

For its part, the United States has stood by Mr. Musharraf. In recent days, two top State Department officials, Richard Boucher and John Negroponte, visited with Musharraf in Islamabad on Saturday. Both officials said they trust him to address one of Pakistan's most controversial issues: whether Musharraf can run for president again while remaining Army chief.

"I think this is something that President Musharraf himself is going to want to decide and this is a matter that is up to him," said Mr. Negroponte.

But the change of power in Congress this year has brought new scrutiny to the idea that Musharraf is the only man who can prevent Pakistani-sponsored nuclear terrorism.

To maintain his rule, some Congressional democrats say, Musharraf has had to marginalize Pakistan's largest parties, which are secular, and instead rely on religious parties to give him some patina of support. In doing so, however, Musharraf has suppressed the moderating elements of Pakistani society.

The shift comes as extremism in Pakistan has reached unprecedented levels during the past two years. For the first time, Taliban-linked militants have targeted government ministers and Army personnel in suicide bombings and ratcheted up violence in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.