Pakistan vs. al-Qaida


Mar 13, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on March 13, 2006.

WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) — The recent visit by President George W. Bush to Pakistan focused media attention on critics of President Pervez Musharraf and prompted them to call on Bush to put more pressure on the general to embrace democratic reform. But experience has shown that such pressure can often backfire — setting in motion a chain reaction of events that can create bigger problems within and beyond a nation's borders.

In Iran in the 1970s, for example, pushing out one leader created a power vacuum that helped spark the Iranian revolution. Although the Shah of Iran was an unelected monarch and certainly no Jeffersonian democrat, he was an ally of the United States.

Similarly, recent democratic elections in the Palestinian territories brought Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, to power. The group's refusal to accept Israel's right to exist and denounce violence against the Jewish state has destabilized the region and essentially shattered President Bush's roadmap to peace. However, no one can argue against the electoral process that Hamas chose to participate in to achieve its political status today.

In Pakistan, critics of Musharraf's military regime insist that democratic reform is long overdue, calling on the general to take off the military uniform for national elections. But that wasn't the message that President Bush sent to Pakistan in last month's visit.

Instead, the U.S. president reiterated his commitment to the war on terror and importance of Pakistan's role in eliminating the al-Qaida network. It was apparent from Bush's visit and speech that America was more concerned about fighting terrorism — with the end goal of killing or capturing Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — than the democratization of Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis justifiably fear that a free and fair election in Pakistan today would enable the hard-line Islamic parties and the extremist mullahs or clerics who lead them to assume power. No U.S. administration would be able to engage a theocratic-style government that would likely support the pro-Taliban rogue elements in northern Pakistan that remain a threat to America's efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

On a recent visit to Pakistan, where I spent weeks visiting the country's religious seminaries and talking to high-level officials, it became apparent that Pakistanis, too, understood America's objective.

Most Pakistanis fear that once bin Laden was captured, the United States would pull out of the country and realign itself with India, America's longstanding strategic partner. That message was clear when Bush sealed a nuclear deal with India, promising access to U.S. civilian nuclear technology, while Musharraf was promised closer U.S. ties as the hunt for bin Laden continued.

In the interim, America may not have another option but to support a general who is neither democratic nor autocratic, but is willing to target, detain and kill terrorists. This makes Musharraf a valuable ally in America's war on terrorism.

© 2006 United Press International

Farhana Ali is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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