The Magazine

Our Pakistan Challenge

Something good can come out of the emergency.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By DANIEL TWINING
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Rather than being a bulwark against extremism, Musharraf's rule has fueled the "Talibanization" of Pakistani society. The country's largest Islamist coalition, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, expanded its political base in the 2002 elections and, until recently, ruled two of the country's four provinces. It has benefited from the intelligence service's support and electoral manipulation to garner twice the vote it did under civilian rule and become a force in national politics. And, as he has allied himself with Islamist political forces, Musharraf has waged political warfare against their democratic counterparts, forcing civilian leaders like Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif into exile and employing the resources of the state to break their parties. By preventing the moderate opposition from freely taking part in elections, Musharraf created a vacuum that could only be filled by extremists.

It is true that Osama bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan than Musharraf--but Bhutto and Sharif are each significantly more popular than either, and analysts believe their parties would prevail in free elections. Indeed, the massive crowds that greeted Bhutto's return to Pakistan from exile demonstrated her strength. She threatens the religious extremists--who she argues have grown stronger thanks to the connivance of the military regime--as demonstrated by their attempt to assassinate her last month.

American support has given Pakistan's military regime legitimacy. Pakistani officials boast that Musharraf holds power with the support of "the Army, Allah, and America." Since 2001, the United States has provided more than $10 billion in assistance, nearly all in military funding and hardware. This has produced real gains in the war on terror, but has also empowered the armed forces at the expense of civil society and given Musharraf the belief, implicit in his declaration of martial law in defiance of U.S. opposition, that America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. The United States is now faced with an autocratic regime that holds Washington hostage to its misguided political choices, and a large, liberal middle class that believes America has taken the wrong side in Pakistani politics.

Pakistan is not a failing state held together by military rule. It is a state in crisis because its military regime is illegitimate. Pakistanis do not want the army to further arbitrate the country's political life; they want its subversion of civilian institutions to end and a democratic alternative to emerge. At the same time, the officer corps has an abiding interest in getting out of politics to salvage its reputation, now under assault thanks to Musharraf's heavy-handedness, as the nation's most respected institution, one that can be an effective partner to America in the war on terror.

Pakistan needs a compact between civilian and military leaders of the kind Chilean democrats secured a generation ago. Negotiations enabled a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Chile after decades of dictatorship. Democrats succeeded because military rule had been discredited by brutality against civilians and the suppression of dissent, and the officer corps had come to believe that a return to the barracks was the best way to restore its professional integrity. Chile's middle class had expanded thanks to strong economic growth under the military regime, and they were seeking a greater voice in politics. And the country had a history of democracy that could be invoked to help mobilize the opposition and strengthen the hand of civilian leaders in the negotiations. Finally, Chile's democratic leaders showed a willingness to allow the military to retain a strong policy role under civilian leadership, and the international community gave them moral and material support in their struggle. All these conditions are present in Pakistan today.

Washington has been promoting a power-sharing arrangement between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, whose popularity likely would allow her to become prime minister following national elections. The United States must be careful not to manipulate Pakistan's internal politics in ways that further discredit us in the eyes of the public. But the U.S. aim is a liberal one: Incorporating Pakistan's most popular political party into the military regime following free and fair elections would expand the political space for democratic forces to operate and create a new balance of power between civilian and military leaders. It could lay the foundation for a negotiated settlement that diminishes the military's role in politics.