Could Pakistan fall to extremists?

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

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.

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.

Yet Pakistani analysts overwhelmingly say that the best way to combat terrorism here is not with military force, but with a true democracy. Pakistan has been a democracy for 30 of the 60 years since it gained its independence. During those years, religious parties never won more than 12 percent of the vote in any election.

"As impressive and worrying as this total appears to some, the Islamist vote remains limited to slightly more than one-tenth of the electorate despite heavy manipulations in its favor by the state machinery," writes Frédéric Grare in a 2006 report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The statistics play against common perceptions of Pakistan abroad. Some 70 percent of the population of Pakistan comes from the lowland areas of Punjab and upper Sindh, where cultural traditions and economic aspirations hew to those of moderate India. Likewise, more than 84 percent of the Army officer corps comes from Punjab and Sindh.

Because of this, the military rulers who have run Pakistan for the other half of its existence have never dismantled the democratic system. Rather, they have bent it to their will to create a sheen of democracy.

To do this, however, Musharraf – like the three military rulers that preceded him – has relied on fringe religious parties.

These parties have deep grass-roots connections and formidable street power, making them a convenient political ally for military rulers, who otherwise would lack popular support bases of their own. In return, religious parties receive disproportionate influence.

"The first step to cleaning up extremists is to make sure extremists are marginalized," says Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group's office in Islamabad. "Musharraf is so dependent on them for propping up his political order."

"You've got to get rid of that prop," she adds.

Western officials say they are committed to doing this by working within the current regime.

"Washington should not press for Musharraf's ouster, since this year's elections are only the first step along the way to disengaging the military from domestic politics," writes Daniel Markey, a former State Department official, in the coming issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

For Musharraf, extremism has its benefits

Yet here, the sense is that the Musharraf regime at times allows extremism to fester for its own ends.

"When it is a means of attracting money from the West, [the government] creates such issues," says Mufti Muhammad Naeem, the head of Binoria University, a prominent madrassah in Karachi.

Western officials strongly disagree with this assertion. "The position of the US has been consistent – we do not see any duplicity in the government of Pakistan," says the US diplomat in Islamabad.

To be sure, Musharraf has offered the US a measure of stability and a sure ally in uncertain times. But Pakistan has experience in managing political turmoil and transition, says Syeda Abida Hussain, ambassador to the US from 1991 to 1993.

"He's the fourth [military ruler] we've had," she says. "We've done all this before."

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