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Musharraf fears democracy, not extremism

The West must not let this crisis spiral out of control.

By Vali Nasr / November 6, 2007

Medford, Mass.

On Nov. 3, Gen. Pervez Musharraf put Pakistan effectively under martial law. He suspended the Constitution; sacked judges; imposed restrictions on the press; and put hundreds of politicians, lawyers, and civil society activists in jail or under house arrest.

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This was a military coup, President Musharraf's second in less than a decade. In 1999, his target was the elected government; this time it is the judiciary, the obstacle to his indefinite rule over Pakistan. Musharraf justified his actions by warning that Pakistan's sovereignty was in danger and that he would not allow the country "to commit suicide." One would assume he was referring to foreign invasion or civil war, but it was Pakistan's independent-minded judges and secular lawyers that he was accusing of sedition, for standing up to him and holding his government accountable before the law.

In the weeks leading up to martial law, suicide bombers had killed 140 people in an attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Seven more people died a few days later in a blast outside Musharraf's office and another eight in an attack on Air Force personnel. During the same week, Islamic extremists battled thousands of soldiers for control of Swat, a district on the Afghan border. Hundreds were killed as the military endured the humiliation of surrendering 48 soldiers to the extremists. The surging violence is a threat to Pakistan, but as Musharraf's speech made clear, it is democracy – not extremism – that worries him.

Since 9/11, Washington has embraced Musharraf as an ally in the war on terror and the bulwark against extremism in Pakistan. But Musharraf's Pakistan has not lived up to expectations. Pakistan's contribution to fighting Al Qaeda is open to question; the Taliban hiding in Pakistan are terrorizing southern Afghanistan; and in Pakistan, there is now more violence, extremism, and instability than when Musharraf took over in 1999.

What is wrong with this picture?

Washington is more concerned with Islamic extremism than Musharraf, who as military chief in 1999 sent jihadi fighters into Kashmir to challenge Indian troops. He pays lip service to democracy but views the Constitution as an impediment and elections as a threatening menace. Little wonder that while presenting a secular image to the West, Musharraf has looked to Islamic parties to upend democracy and keep former prime ministers Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif out of politics. Musharraf engineered the unexpected electoral success of Islamic parties in the 2002 elections and helped them form governments in two provinces.

As a price for their cooperation, Islamic parties got protection for their Taliban and extremist allies and a free hand to impose more Islamic laws on Pakistanis. Since 2001, Musharraf has selectively cooperated in the war on terror but resisted cutting all ties with extremists.

Extremism is not a clean weapon, and the jihadi Frankenstein that Pakistani intelligence has let loose is now threatening its master. Musharraf has been the target of assassinations, and last summer troops had to be deployed in Islamabad to dislodge violent extremists from the Red Mosque, popular with Pakistani officers and less than a mile away from the headquarters of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.