Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Examining Pakistan - a commentary

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has supported the war on terror so far (notwithstanding we would like him to do more); but he rules an impoverished and increasingly radical population. Musharraf also faces a powerful enemy next door; the Taliban in Afghanistan. If the economic crisis in Pakistan continues, the Pakistan government could fall and Islamists would come to power and control nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

The survival of Pakistan in its existing form is a vital U.S. security interest, one that should trump a desire for ‘democracy’. A collapse of Pakistan -- into internal anarchy or an Islamist revolution -- would cripple the global campaign against Islamist terrorism. Therefore, strengthening the Pakistani government led by Musharraf and reinforcing cooperation with the United States and the West have become immensely important to our efforts against the Islamic terrorists.

To avoid Musharraf's loss of power in Pakistan, the United States has provided a significant amount of economic and military aid. However, Washington must continue to provide aid and must do all it can to make sure Islamists do not take over the government. All the sniping and criticism of Musharraf is dangerous and calls for democracy are misguided because a nationwide vote in Pakistan, as in every other Islamic country, is sure to bring enemies of civilization to power. Democracy in an Islamic country only means one free election, one time.

The United States by its action does not seem to fully appreciate the importance of Pakistan at this particular time. Strong popular support for the Taliban is present mainly in Pashtun areas of Pakistan, closely linked to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. However, Pakistan is dominated by its Punjab province, and it is Punjabis, not Pashtuns, who have always decided the fate of the country's regimes. Punjabis account for over 60 percent of Pakistan's population and an even higher proportion of the army, the officer corps, and the administrative elite; Pashtuns, make up only 10 percent of the population. Therefore it is highly possible for power in the country to be retained by elements not friendly to the Taliban and their al Queada partners IF we do what we can to bolster the Musharraf government and the military supporters. It was incredibly stupid policy to demand Musharraf leave the military to assume the office of the presidency because there is now the possibility that Musharraf will not be able to control the military as when he was in charge.

To preserve cooperation within Pakistan, the United States will have to avoid doing anything that could reduce the western tilt of the military. Within Pakistan, the army will have to be treated as the United States' key working partner. The army is Pakistan's only effective modern institution and the backbone of the Pakistani state. It is largely thanks to the army's discipline and unity that Musharraf has been able to keep protest against the United States’ military efforts under control. Maintaining a military focused on Pakistan's core national interests, therefore, remains the best way to save the country from being caught up in international revolutionary Islamist dream of world supremacy.

The threat that Pakistan might one day succumb to an Islamist revolution or dissolve into chaos is due less from the strength of its Islamists than from the weakness of their opponents. Together, Pakistan's Islamist parties have never garnered a majority in a general election. They are divided by personal allegiances, political opportunism, regional origins, and doctrinal differences. Still, the Islamists manage to exert a political and ideological influence in excess of their numbers, largely because, absent Islam, Pakistan has little else in ideological terms to keep the country together, and by the free use of terror tactics.

To minimize the possibility of Pakistan becoming under Islamic control in the future, it is necessary to disrupt control of the madrassas (Islamic schools) by Islamic fanatics. Pakistan’s current attempts to gain greater control over Pakistan's radical madrassas are now being intensified. These include imposing a broad, modern curriculum on the schools, registering all of their foreign students, and forcing them to cut their ties with militant training camps. The United States should keep the pressure on to ensure that the Pakistan government follows through on these efforts; the madrassas have become training grounds for radical groups all over the Muslim world, and their graduates have caused destruction in Pakistan itself, as well as staffing the Taliban.

If Pakistan falls to radical Islamists, we do not want the blame to fall on us by adopting misguided policies. We must help Pakistan to develop and improve the living conditions of its people so as to make the Islamic radical option less attractive. In the current situation, even Musharraf's authoritarian regime has been a good deal less dictatorial than would an Islamic regime that would replace it.

In the long term, only serious economic growth and the development of accountable political parties will stabilize Pakistan and end this threat. In the short-to-medium term, however, Musharraf and the army remains the best bulwark against chaos and revolution. It is on them, therefore, that the United States must base its immediate efforts. Inevitably, this will require continuing to provide Pakistan with weapons and armaments, but it will also require economic aid, training programs and various forms of contact with Pakistani officers at all levels. If Pakistan's military is going to remain supportive of the United States and take the difficult steps necessary to defend the U.S. war against terrorism, these officers must be convinced that their actions are in Pakistan's national interest; and the United States still has a lot of convincing to do.

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