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The Answer in Pakistan

By Thomas R. Pickering, Carla Hills and Morton Abramowitz
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Every day that Gen. Pervez Musharraf refuses to reverse his imposition of martial law and restore Pakistan's constitution brings another round of disturbing reports -- lawyers beaten, journalists arrested, mass protests for democracy crushed -- and another day of embarrassment for the military government's foreign backers. The Bush administration's aims of securing support for the "war on terror" and stability for a nuclear power will continue to be right, but as a nation of 160 million people rapidly frays under repression, it will only become more obvious that military dictatorship is not the answer.

This realization is already settling in. Many in the Bush administration and Congress have been sending clear messages of disapproval to Musharraf. The Pentagon, however, has been more ambiguous, and it is unclear whether military aid will continue as if nothing happened on Nov. 3.

The United States must go beyond verbal condemnations and show with actions that it believes Musharraf is on the wrong track.

If there is a recent analogy to what is happening in Pakistan, it is the Philippines of Ferdinand Marcos in late 1985 (though the stakes are much higher today). During President Ronald Reagan's second term, the administration came to recognize that, despite his and earlier administrations' acceptance of the dictator, Marcos's desire to maintain political power at all costs was destroying democracy and prospects for stability in his country.

His personal ambition was casting the Philippine armed forces in the role of popular repressor rather than national protector, tainting their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. More than anything else, that fact had undermined the Philippines' battle against militant Islamist and communist rebels.

Today, the alternative to Musharraf's military rule is not a mob of radical Islamists -- this is not Iran in the 1970s. The alternative, as in the Philippines, is a moderate, secular political opposition organized into political parties. Both the Pakistan People's Party under Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League under Nawaz Sharif are opposed to the jihadi movements. They have publicly committed themselves to combating not only al-Qaeda but also the political and military leadership of the Taliban living in Pakistan, a point on which Musharraf has been notably reluctant to act.

Poll after poll has found that if fair and free elections were held under constitutional protections and monitored by national and international observers, the result would be a moderate, pro-Western, anti-extremist government in Pakistan. A September survey by the International Republican Institute forecast the two moderate opposition parties winning 64 percent of the vote. The conservative Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid would get 16 percent, it found. All the religious parties combined would get barely 15 percent of the vote.

Musharraf has relied on an alliance with the religious parties, some of which have clear ties to jihadi groups that are themselves linked to Taliban terrorists. After the 1999 military coup installing Musharraf, they achieved their parliamentary majority only through a rigged election in 2002. In a free vote, extremists don't stand a chance. It is only Musharraf who props them up -- out of fear of what a democratic election would bring.

Indeed, the same Republican Institute poll showed that 74 percent oppose Musharraf's reelection.

In the 1980s, Congress began pressing for a halt to military aid to the Philippines, and in the face of massive popular opposition to Marcos, Reagan finally told Marcos that neither the United States nor his own people could continue to accept his efforts to stay in power. Today, the United States must make it clear to Pakistan that our relationship -- including military cooperation, training, support for the F-16s Washington allowed Pakistan to purchase and other aid not directly linked to counterterrorism -- will fundamentally change unless there is a return to democracy.

This means revoking the declaration of martial law; restoring the constitution, the judiciary and fundamental freedoms; and the release of all political detainees. Musharraf must give up his post of army chief and abide by any Supreme Court decision on his eligibility for the presidency. A neutral caretaker government should be formed, in consultation with all opposition parties, to oversee the polls, and the Election Commission of Pakistan should be reconstituted. Free, fair and transparent elections can then be held -- something that is impossible under martial law.

The Bush administration and Congress urgently need to make clear that the United States will not support a repressive military regime that inevitably will threaten Pakistan's stability as well as U.S. security.

Thomas R. Pickering, co-chairman of the International Crisis Group board of trustees, was undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2001. Carla Hills, a member of the Crisis Group board, is a former U.S. trade representative. Morton Abramowitz, a member of the Crisis Group board, has served as ambassador to Turkey and Thailand.

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