A False Choice for Pakistan
Last month President Bush told Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan that he must be more aggressive in hunting down al-Qaeda and the Taliban along his country's border with Afghanistan. During his recent visit to Islamabad, Vice President Cheney echoed the claim that al-Qaeda members were training in Pakistan's tribal areas and called on Musharraf to shut down their operations. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett also expressed concern recently about suspected terrorist safe havens.
Clearly, the pressure is on. Western leaders are finally beginning to recognize that Musharraf's regime has been unsuccessful in taming the Taliban, which has regrouped in the tribal areas of Pakistan while the military regime has given up trying to establish order on the Afghan border. At the same time, the regime has strategically chosen to help the United States when international criticism of the terrorists' presence becomes strident. The arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a top Taliban strategist, by Pakistani authorities late last month is a case in point. The timing, right on the heels of American and British pleas for renewed toughness, is too convenient. Akhund was arrested solely to keep Western governments at bay.
There are other political calculations in all of this. For too long, the international perception has been that Musharraf's regime is the only thing standing between the West and nuclear-armed fundamentalists.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Islamic parties have never garnered more than 13 percent in any free parliamentary elections in Pakistan. The notion of Musharraf's regime as the only non-Islamist option is disingenuous and the worst type of fear-mongering.
Much has been said about Pakistan being a key Western ally in the war against terrorism. It is the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid -- the Bush administration proposed $785 million in its latest budget. Yet terrorism around the world has increased. Why is it that all terrorist plots -- from the Sept. 11 attacks, to Madrid, to London, to Mumbai -- seem to have roots in Islamabad?
Pakistan's military and intelligence services have, for decades, used religious parties for recruits. Political madrassas -- religious schools that preach terrorism by perverting the faith of Islam -- have spread by the tens of thousands.
The West has been shortsighted in dealing with Pakistan. When the United States aligns with dictatorships and totalitarian regimes, it compromises the basic democratic principles of its foundation -- namely, life, liberty and justice for all. Dictatorships such as Musharraf's suppress individual rights and freedoms and empower the most extreme elements of society. Oppressed citizens, unable to represent themselves through other means, often turn to extremism and religious fundamentalism.
Restoring democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilization and marginalize the extremists. A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be a breeding ground for international terrorism.
Indeed, Pakistan's return to democracy is essential to America's success in South and Central Asia, as well as in the Middle East, as democratization is an integral part of fighting terrorism. Wouldn't it therefore be prudent to tie aid money to genuine political reform?
Pakistan must take steps toward hunting down al-Qaeda operatives in the "ungovernable" tribal and border areas -- which were once successfully governed by democratically elected civilian governments. The regime must also stop its intimidation tactics of recent weeks, which include brutal murders, assassination attempts and other attacks on opposition party members.
Of course Musharraf's regime, to legitimize its coup and divert attention from the institutionalized corruption of the military, accuses Pakistan's secular, democratic parties of corruption. But according to Transparency International, 67 percent of the people believe the regime is corrupt, surpassing the rate for past civilian governments. Musharraf's regime has lasted twice as long as any civilian government in Pakistan. Yet not one of its ministers or key political supporters has been investigated.
The National Accountability Bureau has persecuted opposition leaders for a decade on unproven corruption and mismanagement charges, hoping to grind them into submission. However, when politicians accused of corruption cross over to the regime, the charges miraculously disappear. Musharraf's regime exploits the judicial system as yet another instrument of coercion and intimidation to consolidate its illegitimate power. But the politics of personal destruction will not prevent me and other party leaders from bringing our case before the people of our nation this year, even if that could lead to imprisonment.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush said, "The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security: We must."
This holds true for countries in South and Central Asia as well. Now is the time to force Pakistan's government to make good on its promise to return to democracy.
The writer is chairwoman of the Pakistan People's Party and served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. She lives in exile in Dubai.