NEW DELHI — The fight against international terrorism is very much tied to the future of Pakistan and the central challenge that country faces: to move away from militarism, extremism and fundamentalism, and toward a stable, moderate state. That’s what makes Pakistani military ruler President Pervez Musharraf’s latest move so worrisome.
Quietly, without drawing international attention, Musharraf has unveiled his plan to stay enthroned for five more years beyond 2007. He intends to get the outgoing Parliament and four provincial legislatures to "elect" him to a new presidential term in the fall, before he oversees the long-awaited national polls a couple of months later.
Musharraf’s maneuver is the latest in a long series of broken promises to return his country to democracy. Although the new national polls are likely to be no different than the rigged voting of 2002, the advance re-election ruse indicates that Musharraf wishes to play it safe. His sinking popularity has spurred speculation that he might actually declare a state of emergency to smother vocal opposition.
But the more powers Musharraf has progressively assumed since the 1999 bloodless coup, the more dependent he has become on his military and intelligence, and thus the less capable he is to sever their cozy ties with extremist and terrorist elements.
It has become evident that the international war on terror cannot be won without deradicalizing Pakistan. Indeed, Musharraf’s chief benefactor, U.S. President George W. Bush, reportedly will send Musharraf a tough warning that the Democratic-led Congress may cut aid to Pakistan if it doesn’t do more to crack down on terrorism. On Monday, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney pressed Musharraf to do more to crack down on militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Despite global concerns about terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the current international spotlight on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran helps obscure the danger that Pakistan — with terrorists and nuclear weapons controlled by Islamist generals — could be just one step away from our worst nightmare.
Indeed, Western officials have recently pointed to Pakistan’s centrality in the war on terror. In January, then U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Pakistan is the hub of a global web of al-Qaida connections and "a major source of Islamist extremism and the home for some top terrorist leaders."
Hobbled by military rule, militant Islam, endemic corruption and dependency on foreign aid, Pakistan remains a main breeding ground of global terror and the likely hideout of the most wanted terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. U.S. counterterrorism officials say bin Laden and al-Zawahri now feel more secure as al-Qaida has rebuilt its training camps in Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan.
With its use of Islam for legitimacy and promotion of militant groups as proxies, military rule in Pakistan has helped create greater opportunities for Islamists. Today, a military dictatorship that is part of the problem has presented itself to the outside world as part of the solution.
Musharraf oils his dictatorship with American aid, as did the previous Pakistani dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who spurred on the rise of the forces of jihad. Sadly, America’s narrow, immediate geopolitical objectives have continued to take precedence over longer-term interests. Just as the U.S. propped up Zia to take on Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it needs a pliant ruler today because it uses Pakistan for multiple objectives, including as a gateway to NATO military operations in Afghanistan and for reconnaissance missions into Iran. Bush’s looming confrontation with Iran has only enhanced Pakistan’s importance as a staging ground for U.S. anti-Iranian operations.
With Musharraf benefiting more than any other ruler in the world from the 9/11 events, Pakistan has emerged the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, including counterterrorism subsidies. In addition, America has helped Pakistan reschedule repayment of international debt totaling $ 13.5 billion, and is currently providing $ 5.1 billion in credit guarantees for Pakistani purchase of 62 F-16 fighter-jets.
Yet Pakistan’s internal problems have exacerbated. In a recent Transparency International survey, two-thirds of Pakistanis said this was the most corrupt regime since 1988, when Pakistan began experimenting with democracy for a decade following the previous dictator’s death in a mysterious plane crash. The 2006 Failed States Index of the Washington-based The Fund for Peace ranked Pakistan as the world’s ninth most dysfunctional state.
Musharraf has kept alive the myth that his rule helps prevent an Islamist takeover. But even if he were to leave, another general would succeed him. Far from being a bulwark against radicals, Musharraf has only helped marginalize and splinter mainstream parties, and allowed Islamists to gain political space.
Increasingly, many Pakistanis are acknowledging that at the root of their country’s problems is military rule. For example, columnist Ayaz Amir, writing in the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper, said, "Military rule has been the mother of extremism in Pakistan," adding, "We must return to being a normal country."
Without the military’s viselike grip on power being broken and the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency being cut to size, there is little hope of any real, sustained movement toward democracy or to deracinate the jihad culture in Pakistan.
In the absence of open elections and public accountability, military rule indeed has helped engender a pressure-cooker syndrome in Pakistani society, spurring greater extremism.
More ominously, Pakistan has emerged as a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism. As Musharraf himself acknowledged on July 21, 2005, in an address to the nation after the London subway bombings, "Wherever these extremist or terrorist incidents occur in the world, a direct or indirect connection is established with this country."
A key lesson from the rise of international terrorism is that export-oriented jihad structures do not flourish in democratic societies. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism.
Helping drain the terrorism-breeding swamps in Pakistan won’t be easy. But it’s essential. The answer is not the jackboot, but the development of a robust civil society that can act as a check on the deleterious undercurrents. A well-developed civil society can emerge only on the back of sustained democracy.
Pakistan cannot put off forever its evolution toward a democratic polity. Democratization will cause pain in the short run but bring long-term benefits.
If free and fair elections were permitted, the mainstream political forces could still recover quickly. A civilian government will be both moderate and more inclined to stem rising extremism.
Musharraf’s move thwarts the key building block to deradicalize Pakistani society — true democratic participation. By empowering the masses and deciding issues at the ballot box, such participation establishes a safety valve in society. That is what Pakistan needs urgently.