The War Against the Taliban and al-Qaeda Requires U.S. Intervention in Islamabad

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

PAKISTAN'S LATEST crisis has eased, after President Asif Ali Zardari capitulated to protesters who threatened to march on the capital, Islamabad. But for the Obama administration, the challenge of political dysfunction in this nuclear-armed state has hardly diminished. As they showed during the past week, Pakistan's civilian and secular political leaders are more concerned with destroying each other than with fighting the Islamic extremists who are rapidly gaining strength in the country. The Pakistani army, for its part, remains more focused on the perceived threat from India than on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. These problems are deeply rooted -- but the new U.S. administration will have to take them on if it is to successfully combat the terrorist threat to the United States.

Pakistan's return to democratic government a year ago ended an increasingly authoritarian regime that lacked both the will and the political authority to take on the Taliban. But the transition also reopened the feuding between civilian political parties that dominated national politics in the 1990s. While saying they recognize the jihadist threat, Mr. Zardari -- the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif have resumed their ruthless competition. Both have employed undemocratic tactics: Mr. Sharif has chosen to fight the government mostly in the streets rather than in Parliament, while Mr. Zardari tried to block last weekend's protests with mass arrests and media censorship.

A third secular force, a movement of judges and lawyers that rallied behind former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, is seen by many middle-class Pakistanis as representing the rule of law. Mr. Zardari's agreement to restore Mr. Chaudhry to the court Monday ended the protest march and was celebrated as a victory for democracy. But Mr. Chaudhry, who takes pride in his maverick decisions, could easily destroy the fragile system if he chooses to reopen old cases involving Mr. Zardari, Mr. Sharif or former president Pervez Musharraf. He could set an example for the political leaders by embracing restraint and compromise -- qualities sorely missing from Pakistani politics.

In the past, Pakistan's political feuding has inexorably led to military coups, which have been tolerated if not welcomed by the United States. But in the era of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which grow stronger with each new crisis in Islamabad, that pattern must be broken. Pakistan's military leadership and the Obama administration need to play a stabilizing role for the civilian leaders by arbitrating and limiting their conflicts. They should insist on faithfulness to the rule of law and to the democratic process, rather than picking a winner -- in the case of the United States -- or directly intervening, in the case of the military. And they should press for agreement on the country's main enemy -- jihadism -- and a comprehensive strategy for confronting it.

As it formulates its broader strategy for the region, the Obama administration should recognize that it cannot combat the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan and western Pakistan without tackling the larger issues of governance in both countries. The events of the past week showed that the United States must help to foster a stable and representative government in Islamabad. The same principle applies in Kabul.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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