Pakistan at the brink

Pakistan has assumed critical importance in the war against terrorism, right at a particularly fragile moment for its government.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in 1999 via a coup, sits atop a society with substantial sympathy toward the extremist religious and political agenda of Osama bin Laden and the ruling Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Missteps in US policy could easily help bring a new regime to power in Pakistan - and a potential result that could not be more disturbing: a nuclear-armed state allied with terrorist organizations.

In the first week of air strikes on Afghanistan, the United States has relied heavily on Pakistan, which has promised help with intelligence and use of its airspace and bases. The US must provide substantial development aid to Pakistan immediately. The goal: to shore up General Musharraf's standing with his people, as well as improve the nation's terrible economic conditions, boost democracy, and strengthen political institutions.

Two developments deserve note: The US has allowed Pakistan's strategic interest in the shape of Afghanistan's post-Taliban government to dictate the pace of its military campaign. This is likely to prolong the conflict. Also last week, Musharraf took the risk of dismissing several senior military and intelligence officers with known sympathies to the Taliban and terrorist groups. This makes Pakistan less secure; now, these officers are "outside the tent" and aligned with the extremist religio-political sympathies pervasive throughout society.

The military and intelligence services are almost evenly divided between traditional soldiers and extremists devoted to a pan-Islamist struggle. The continued presence of extremists among senior officers has certainly threatened Musharraf's capacity to stand with the West.

However, the relationship between the Taliban, terrorist organizations, and the Pakistani armed forces and society is deeper and wider than a handful of senior officers. The Taliban were trained and organized in Pakistan, and received substantial military, economic, and intelligence support from Pakistan. The Taliban and the terrorist organizations they shelter work closely with heavily armed political organizations in Pakistan. Removing senior officers leaves this network intact. By removing the network's hope of enjoying power and influence within the status quo, Musharraf's purge offers an incentive for the network to openly move against his government. The prospect of a split in the armed forces is very real.

In the 1980s, the US supported a military government in Pakistan in the fight against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. US aid went to the Pakistani intelligence and military services, the Afghan resistance, and Afghan refugees. It did not benefit Pakistan's people. By supporting a military regime, Washington was perceived as an enemy of Pakistani aspirations to democracy.

When Soviet forces left Afghanistan, the US abandoned Pakistan. Though legally required to end most aid to the government because of Pakistan's pursuit of nuclear weapons technology, Washington could have fashioned a diplomatic and aid strategy that did not dissociate the US from the people of Pakistan. But it failed to do so.

Washington will now have to provide assistance on a scale and of a type that demonstrates that engagement with the US, and resisting the lure of extremism, better answers the basic aspirations of the Pakistani people for democracy and development.

Pakistan once offered the hope of a modern and progressive model of a Muslim nation. Much of the appeal of political extremism there has grown in the economic deterioration and hopelessness of the vast majority of its 140 million people. The lack of democracy and civil society has given extremism the run of popular political discourse. US aid directed to benefit ordinary Pakistanis would also restore some of the enormous goodwill that the US once enjoyed there.

Since aid would also serve the Musharraf government's interests, the US can insist that he honor his commitment to restore democracy. Washington cannot treat the Musharraf government as untouchable, but the US can clearly state its needs and direct substantial assistance to civil society. The US and Musharraf now have a shared interest in this.

Amit A. Pandya is a former Defense and State Department official, and a member of the Washington Foreign Policy Group.

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