Hope in Pakistan

A scene from a Peshawar polling station during Pakistan's Feb. 18 elections.
A scene from a Peshawar polling station during Pakistan's Feb. 18 elections. (By Paula Bronstein -- Getty Images)
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By Richard Holbrooke
Friday, March 21, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistan has had a such run of bad news in recent years that it may seem delusional to describe the current mood here as hopeful. Yet that is the impression this country -- often called by the American media the most dangerous on Earth -- is offering a visitor.

The main reason for the new mood is the return of a vibrant democratic process and what is widely believed to be the end of a decade of military rule. Less than two months after Benazir Bhutto's murder, her Pakistan People's Party and the party of her chief rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, swept parliamentary elections that were widely accepted as honest. They have formed a Pakistani version of a grand coalition, with Bhutto's PPP on top.

The victory of these parties -- broadly based political organizations with widespread popular appeal -- is only half the story. The other half is equally important: The military seems to have pulled out of the political arena, at least temporarily, after President Pervez Musharraf's party won less than 20 percent of the seats in the newly elected National Assembly. Since Musharraf's real power base was as military commander, when he "took off his uniform" last year, it turned out that his residual power as president was largely ceremonial -- "like the queen of England," as one enthusiastic new parliamentarian put it. The new military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, has said emphatically that the military should stay out of politics. In a country where the military has stepped into the political process with unfortunate regularity since the birth of the nation in 1947, this could be the biggest news of all -- if Kiyani and his colleagues mean it. The military has a central role to play in Pakistan's security, but not in the political arena.

Another positive straw in the wind is the poor showing of the overtly religious parties in February's elections -- they got only 4 percent of the total vote. In the volatile tribal areas near the Afghan border, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have had a sanctuary from NATO operations in Afghanistan, the Muslim parties were shut out.

This does not mean, of course, that the border region is free of terrorists; sheltered deep in the valleys and villages of western Pakistan, they pose a serious threat to American and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan. Dealing with them will require a massive program of security and development that goes far beyond the current plan, which is about $150 million in U.S. assistance per year. After visiting the border areas this week, I believe that the place to start is with a vastly improved, better-equipped, better-trained and better-paid Frontier Corps. This ancient force, created by the British in the 19th century, has only 50,000 troops; incredibly, it faces a better-armed Taliban and local rebel groups. Put another way, the eastern front of the American war in Afghanistan is surely worth more than $150 million a year -- money that, I should note, has not yet arrived in any significant amount.

Huge mistakes were made by the Musharraf regime in the tribal areas. Even Musharraf admits that his government's 2006 peace deal with the Taliban was a disaster that gave the Taliban a huge advantage in the Pakistani tribal areas and greatly weakened the NATO effort in Afghanistan. (Inexplicably, the United States publicly endorsed the deal, perhaps as part of its generally pro-Musharraf policies.)

But it seems a large overstatement to see the militants in the tribal areas as a threat to the rest of Pakistan. Pakistan's problems -- including terrorism -- are monumental, and its future is uncertain. (A bright spot in recent years has been a quietly improving relationship with India.) But Pakistan, the world's second-largest Muslim nation, is too big and its civil society -- with its deeply established political parties, its free press, its vibrant and very visible lawyers, its thousands of nongovernmental organizations, its huge business community, and its own moderate Muslim leaders -- too extensive to in fact become "the world's most dangerous nation."

For their part, educated Pakistanis are following the American presidential campaign carefully. Whoever is elected, they will continue to pay close attention to Washington. (An example: Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and co-chairman of the PPP, told me that in choosing a woman to be speaker of the National Assembly, he was deeply influenced by his wife's friendship with Nancy Pelosi.)

Over decades, Washington has usually sent mixed signals to Pakistan. This time the message should be clear and consistent: democracy, reconciliation, the military out of politics, a new policy for the tribal areas -- and more democracy.

Richard Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company