IN THE TURBULENT and dangerous politics of Pakistan, credible public figures willing to stand up for pluralist democracy are no commonplace. So it was a privilege to meet with Afrasiab Khattak and Asfandyar Wali Khan--middle-aged men who between them have spent more than a decade in prison in the course of their careers opposing military dictatorships--on their recent stop in Washington. Their earnest plea: The United States must remain engaged in their region.

Khattak is a lawyer, writer, and longtime member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, where he just finished a three-year term as chairman. His duties on the commission included responding to the anguished parents of young Pakistanis recruited to fight for the Taliban, while their government turned a blind eye. "It was a disaster," Khattak said on the "NewsHour" with Jim Lehrer in April 2002. "Thousands of people, sentimental people, simple people, naive people went into another country to fight without any preparation, any planning."

In July, Khattak joined the leadership of the Awami National party, of which Asfandyar Wali Khan is president. Elected to the Pakistani senate last March, Wali Khan is the son and grandson of Pashtun political leaders dating back to the independence struggle on the subcontinent.

The ANP is based in the Northwest Frontier Province, where it confronts an Islamist provincial government with anti-American, pro-jihadist leanings. Yet the party has national aspirations and universal principles. Its leaders see it as a "bulwark against extremism and fundamentalism."

"We spoke up publicly after 9/11 for liberal, democratic, secular values and held public meetings against the Taliban. We openly endorsed the liberation of Afghanistan," says Wali Khan.

Like all opposition parties in Pakistan, the ANP operates under constant pressure from the government. Although lively, dissenting voices are heard in the press, freedom of assembly is severely restricted, and discriminatory laws have favored the growing religious parties. In the last election, a requirement that candidates hold advanced degrees "eliminated almost half of all former legislators," according to a recent study by the International Crisis Group. Candidates with degrees from the religious "madrasas" were unaffected. The religious parties boasted their best showing at the polls yet.

The Crisis Group report confirms that the government of President Pervez Musharraf, even as it cooperates with the United States to some degree in the war on terrorism, is undermining the moderate secular parties at home and allowing the military to promote the Islamists. The report urges Western aid donors to channel and condition all aid so as to strengthen liberal forces and civil society.

As for my Pakistani visitors, they foresee disaster if the Islamists get their way.

"We see a sort of interaction between the Iranian mullahs and elements in the Saudi monarchy and fundamentalists and their allies in the Pakistani state," says Wali Khan. "They are cooperating to keep the pot boiling in the region. They want the Americans to get bogged down. The problem is, U.S. policy mostly ignores non-state players, including democratic parties."

Afrasiab Khattak agrees. "The main aim of the extremists is to get the United States out of Afghanistan and Iraq. If the United States withdraws without rebuilding, we in the region have had it. And the suppression of liberal forces will start with us, but it will spread far beyond our borders."

Regional expert Elie Krakowski, a senior fellow of the American Foreign Policy Council, notes the implication for U.S. policy. "If we are serious about building civil society in Pakistan," he says, "we have to help people like Afrasiab Khattak and Asfandyar Wali Khan, because they are capable and they are voicing very legitimate and important views. Given the chance, they could make a lot of headway, and this could serve both Pakistan's interest and ours."

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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