Musharraf's choice: president of Pakistan or dictator of 'Problemistan'?

The fight against international terrorism cannot be won without demilitarizing and deradicalizing Pakistan. That's what makes Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's latest move so worrisome.

Mr. Musharraf took power more than seven years ago in a military coup. Since then, national conditions have markedly worsened. A military dictatorship justified as essential for bringing stability has actually taken the country to the edge.

Now, without drawing international attention, Musharraf has unveiled a plan that will make Pakistan's greatly awaited elections a farce. Under this plan, the outgoing parliament and four provincial legislatures would "elect" him to a new five-year term as president in the fall, before he oversees national polls a few months later. Five years ago, Musharraf orchestrated another charade – a referendum – to extend his self-declared presidency.

Musharraf's maneuver is the latest in a long series of broken promises to return his country to democracy. And it does not bode well for Pakistan's central challenge: moving away from militarism, extremism, and fundamentalism, and toward a stable, moderate state.

The perils of 'partnership' in the war on terror

Although the United States compelled Pakistan post-9/11 to abandon the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and become an ally in the war on terrorism, that partnership has yielded dubious results. To be sure, Musharraf's cooperation led to the capture of some Al Qaeda figures such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah. But it's becoming increasingly clear that he is unwilling or unable to crack down on the terrorist radicals in his midst. His foreign minister boasted that Pakistan had not handed "a single Pakistani" to America and that all the Al Qaeda men captured and transferred to US authorities were foreigners.

Pakistan's home-grown, Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias continue to operate openly. Indeed Musharraf's main benefactor, President Bush, said last week: "Taliban and Al Qaeda figures do hide in remote regions of Pakistan. This is wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West."

Musharraf's sinking popularity has spurred speculation that he might declare a state of emergency to smother vocal opposition. But the more power he usurps, the more dependent he becomes on his military and intelligence. That limits his ability to sever their cozy ties with extremist and terrorist elements.

Musharraf oils his dictatorship with generous American aid. Mr. Bush is too preoccupied with a self-created mess in Iraq to bother about the latest election shenanigan, especially when the Taliban resurgence (supported by Pakistani aid, critics charge) has made the NATO use of Pakistani airspace even more vital for military operations in Afghanistan. Bush's intensifying confrontation with Iran has only enhanced Pakistan's importance as a staging ground for US anti-Iranian operations.

The Commonwealth of Nations, which reinstated Pakistan's membership after a 4-1/2-year suspension following the coup, has looked the other way ever since Musharraf reneged on the very promise that won his country reentry – to give up his dual role as president and Army chief by 2005. Don't expect the Commonwealth to make even a peep when Musharraf stays on as Army chief beyond the next deadline of Nov. 15, 2007 – set by a constitutional amendment he himself engineered to miss the first deadline.

Although the only times when India and Pakistan have come close to peace have been during the brief periods of democratic rule in Islamabad, New Delhi has played no small role in helping Musharraf gain legitimacy from the time it invited him out of the blue to a 2001 peace summit. Today, India not only refrains from speaking about the lack of democracy in Pakistan but, in a major policy reversal, has come to see Musharraf as a partner against terrorism.

A dictatorship that is part of the problem has ingeniously presented itself to the outside world as part of the solution. The scourge of Pakistani terrorism ema- nates not so much from the Islamist mullahs as from generals who reared the forces of jihad and fathered the Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba. Yet by passing the blame for their disastrous jihad policy to their mullah puppets, Musharraf and his fellow generals have made many outsiders believe that the key is to contain the religious fringe, not the puppeteers.

Why military rule must end

Musharraf perpetuates the self-serving myth that his rule helps prevent an Islamist takeover. But military rule would persist in the event of his sudden death.

Until the military's viselike grip on power is broken and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency is cut to size, Pakistan is likely to remain a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism.

In the absence of open elections, military rule has created a pressure-cooker society. What Pakistan needs is a safety valve – true democratic participation that would empower the masses and decide issues at the ballot box.

Jihad culture is now deeply woven into Pakistan's national fabric. Unraveling it won't be easy. But it is essential. Heavy-handed rule from Musharraf – or any other general – won't eliminate Pakistan's extremist elements. The development of a robust civil society – though painful in the short term – will aid democracy, marginalize radicals, and bring Pakistan back from the brink.

Some may think that Musharraf's scheme to stay enthroned is a necessary evil in the service of a greater good. That's half right: It is evil, but it's not necessary. The West needs to exert pressure on him to show real courage – and to bring real reform – by holding himself accountable to voters and making coming elections an honest affair.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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