At first blush, recent events in Pakistan would seem to underscore the case for continuing to support General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s military dictator. Last week Musharrraf ordered the army to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which had been seized by radicals. Army commandos succeeded in their task, albeit at the cost of some 87 lives. Islamist radicals retaliated with a series of bombings over the weekend. Now comes word that the accord reached between the central government and tribal elders in North Waziristan last year has broken down. This was the treaty by which the government of Pakistan essentially ended all efforts to police this tribal area, in return for toothless promises on the part of the tribes to restrain the Taliban.
From Washington’s perspective, all this could be read as evidence that Musharraf remains the indispensable bulwark against Islamist extremism in this nuclear-armed nation. In reality, recent events demonstrate the disastrous consequences of decisions made over the years by Musharraf and other army commanders to reach a modus vivendi with Islamic radicals. The army, and its agency for Inter-Services Intelligence, have been using the radicals to stage attacks into Kashmir and Afghanistan. In return, they have looked the other way as these militants have expanded their influence in Pakistan proper. To be sure, this has been a relationship fraught with tensions—radicals have tried to assassinate Musharraf and he has sometimes cracked down on their activities. But Musharraf has never done as much as he keeps promising Washington he will do to suppress the Islamists—or as much as the majority of secular Pakistanis would like.
What’s interesting, if hardly surprising, about the Red Mosque attack is how much support the government has received from opposition parties, not to mention the middle class in general. As noted by David Rohde in the New York Times,
A nightmare seemed to be unfolding last week when commandos stormed a hardline Islamic mosque in Pakistan’s capital. With at least 87 dead, it looked as if the clash could set off an Islamic uprising in the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim nation.
Instead, few people attended protests organized by religious parties on Friday. What the battle at the mosque seemed to reveal was how complex Pakistani politics is, and how far Islamist radicals are from gaining widespread popular support, Pakistani and American analysts said.
“There was no uprising because the society is not radical and is more opposed to extremism than most commentators think,” said Frederic Grare, a Pakistan analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The clash demonstrates that the majority of the people will back a policy aimed at reducing radicals’ influence.”
In short, Washington need not be unduly afraid of Pakistani democracy. The administration should live up to its own rhetoric and push Musharraf to abide by the constitution, which forbids him from continuing as both president and army chief of staff past this fall. If free elections—in which exiled opposition leaders can compete—are held, there is no reason to think that fundamentalist Islamic parties would win more than a small minority of the vote. This is yet another case where our democratic ideals are congruent with our strategic interests in suppressing Islamist terrorism.