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A radical turnabout in Pakistan

In just five months, public approval of Osama bin Laden has dropped by half.

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Given the public's dramatic turnaround against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly in their home base, there is a singular opportunity for a Pakistani government with the support of the people to have the legitimacy to mount an effective campaign against the terrorists.

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The public's turn against the radicals was accompanied by an equally stunning move toward Pakistan's moderate, secular political parties. In TFT's August survey, only 39 percent backed the principal moderate political parties. In our January pre-election survey, 62 percent said they intended to vote for the moderate political parties in the Feb. 18 elections.

The actual election results now show that about the same percentage, in fact, voted for the moderate political parties.

The fact is, Pakistan includes a mostly young, sophisticated, and upwardly mobile population that aspires to the ideals of democracy and rule of law. If given the opportunity to choose their leaders, there can no longer be any question but they will overwhelmingly elect moderate parties, giving Pakistan a government that finally enjoys the popular legitimacy necessary to mount an effective military campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban – a legitimacy that Mr. Musharraf so clearly lacks.

Pakistan can still be an ally to the United States in its struggle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but only if democracy is allowed to flourish.

Last Thursday, Musharraf said that the methods of TFT and other polling organizations "have value in developed countries but not here." Perhaps because, as a leading national independent Pakistani newspaper concluded, polling helped make "rigging of the elections somewhat difficult."

As Pakistan's moderate parties now consolidate power, they, too, should heed public opinion and remember that there are two mandates from this election. In addition to the widespread support that has swept the moderates to power, the Pakistani public has just as powerfully rejected extremism in all its forms.

Bhutto gave her life for the belief that a freer, more democratic Pakistan would in and of itself be a better partner to the US in the war on terror – indeed, that the people could be the strongest bulwark against the radicals.

Pakistan, with a new American policy that supports democracy, development, and economic opportunity, can help ensure that her dream did not pass away along with her.

Reza Aslan is Middle East analyst for CBS News and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Kenneth Ballen is president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion.