Democracy is Best Weapon Against Terrorists in Pakistan


Dec 6, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Chicago Sun-Times on December 6, 2003.

Pakistan does not need a military government to catch al-Qaida.

The U.S. government says democracy is necessary to inoculate Iraq and Afghanistan against the return of dangerous regimes that oppress their people, support terrorism and threaten America. At the same time, Taliban and al-Qaida forces displaced from Afghanistan are finding refuge and a place to regroup in neighboring Pakistan, which sided with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. The increasingly unstable situation in Pakistan demonstrates that terrorism will continue to flourish until serious democratic reforms are undertaken there as well.

While Pakistan says it has arrested more than 500 al-Qaida and Taliban members, some Pakistani militants have continued attacks against Westerners and given support to al-Qaida, particularly in the tribal area along the border with Afghanistan.

Complicating the situation, the repressive political environment in Pakistan encourages the population to turn to fundamentalist Islamic parties. In the last parliamentary election, President Pervez Musharraf closed the political arena to secular candidates Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. This manipulation of the electoral system gave more votes to the coalition of Islamic parties than in previous elections.

Moreover, poor education is contributing to the popularity of fundamentalist thought and support for militant groups. With a shortage of government schools, families often have no choice when it comes to their children's schooling, and instead send them to madrassahs that teach fundamentalist ideologies. Until a proper educational infrastructure is put in place, extremist groups will have a captive audience.

Al-Qaida has tried to capitalize on the frustration over political repression in Pakistan by adding its voice to those calling for President Musharraf's overthrow. An Al-Qaida senior official recently released an audiotape appealing to Pakistanis to install an alternative government. If the United States does not take more significant measures to implement democracy in Pakistan to enable Musharraf's opponents to seek change peacefully, extremists may take matters into their own hands, potentially ousting Musharraf and installing an Islamic government.

With control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, a fundamentalist Islamic government that retains ties to the Taliban or al-Qaida might use nuclear weapons to escalate its conflict with India or blackmail the United States. In this scenario, there would be pressure for U.S. military intervention.

Musharraf argues that if he were to step down as president, or allow free and fair elections, radical fundamentalism would follow. But Islamic parties have never won a majority in any of the previous national elections in Pakistan. In the last elections, the coalition of Islamic parties was only able to win in a few provinces, and in those places only with a plurality. If given the choice, Pakistanis would likely vote a secular government into power, as they have done in the past.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently stated that although Musharraf remains committed to ousting al-Qaida, not all of Pakistan's security forces are committed to this same goal. One solution has been to create a rapid reaction force designed specifically to focus on hunting down al-Qaida and Taliban elements in the tribal areas. Another is to provide Pakistan with more security assistance, in the form of military and other technical equipment.

However, Pakistan does not need a military government to catch al-Qaida. The military regime has turned over only a fraction of the terrorists who have found refuge in the country. Assisting its transition to a democratic state, however, can help avoid a situation where terrorists determine Pakistan's future.

A long-term solution will require serious reforms in Pakistan. The United States should put its weight and leverage behind establishing a constitution in Pakistan that subordinates the military to the civilian leadership, tying aid to political progress.

It seems clear that in order to effectively stem the tide of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the United States will need to take more significant steps to institute substantial democratic reform in Pakistan.

Rollie Lal and Sara Daly are political scientists at the RAND Corporation.

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