Now that the parliamentary elections in Pakistan have gone decisively against President Pervez Musharraf, there are two relevant questions for the United States to consider: Will the newly elected Pakistani prime minister agree to work with Musharraf, America's staunch ally on the war on terrorism? If the answer is no, what should the United States do in response?
To allay U.S. fears about the elections, Musharraf and his Pakistani friends in Washington repeatedly assured American policymakers that Monday's elections would be "free, fair and transparent," as well as on time — a relatively new word attached to the infamous slogan.
Voting did proceed as planned, but many U.S. experts and officials were wary about whether the elections would produce an honest result. From the U.S. State Department to the Washington-based think tank community, there were concerns that manipulation of the results would force the White House to make some tough choices.
Yet contrary to some Western news reports, the choice for the United States in Pakistan is not simply between a moderate democratic leader or the all-powerful military regime. Rather, the choice for America was boldly articulated by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice a year ago during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "No matter what the [election] result, we need to move in Pakistan from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy."
Her remarks signal that the United States no longer can afford to blindly support Musharraf. Hence, America is moving toward defining a new policy direction for Pakistan, and for good reason.
For a long time the United States has supported Musharraf — a leader who harbors a "cult of personality." He is not unique among Pakistani leaders in this regard. Previous rulers, from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to General Zia ul-Haq, have assumed a larger-than-life leadership role. It is no different today with the ex-General Musharraf in power.
When I worked for the U.S. government, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security analysts could not have imagined a Pakistan without Musharraf. Each time an assassination attempt was made against him, the U.S. government officers I knew sighed in relief when Musharraf escaped.
In those early years after 9/11, U.S. government analysts understood that without Musharraf, the U.S.-Pakistan counter-terrorism cooperation might have been stale and stagnant. Pakistan boasts of arresting or killing at least 700 al-Qaeda operatives on Pakistani soil, a point U.S. analysts accept. Without Musharraf's consent, damaging al-Qaeda's core infrastructure (i.e., training camps) might not have been possible.
But today, the stakes are too high for the United States to compromise its vision of promoting democracy in Pakistan. The United States must support a democratically elected leader to help Pakistan evolve from a weak state to a strong state.
However, the ballot box alone does not guarantee promotion of democracy in a country like Pakistan. With a large rural population, which is illiterate and easily manipulated, we cannot be sure this week's elections truly represent the sentiment of the masses. The only way for this election to be considered "free, fair and transparent" is if the Pakistani elite accept the outcome, no matter how unfavorable it appears for Musharraf. And America should be willing to support the next civilian ruler even if he refuses to enter a power-sharing agreement with the ex-military ruler.
Farhana Ali is an international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared on Washingtonpost.com on March 7, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.