Exorcising General's ghost

FOLLOWING its recent free elections, Pakistan is rebounding politically. But the euphoria that came with the end of the Musharraf era is wearing off, as the new government faces stark choices.

By Hassan Abbas (Pakistan)

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Published: Sun 13 Jul 2008, 10:43 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy is not new to this 60-year-old state, but ethnic cleavages, weak institutions, and religious extremism in the North are perennially destabilising. And, while the new government settles in and establishes its priorities, the West, especially the United States, must reassess the impact of its past dealings with Pakistan.

Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousaf Gilani, is a seasoned politician and, more importantly, has Sufi family roots, which is a good omen because of the Sufi tradition of tolerance. Gilani unequivocally declared in his inaugural address that fighting terrorism is a top priority, and his first decision was to release from house arrest judges deposed by Musharraf. The respite from the horrendous spate of suicide bombings since the new government assumed power is similarly heartening.

But the honeymoon period is coming to an end. Already, in Gilani's hometown of Multan, rioters attacked government offices and banks to protest electricity disruptions. A couple of well-known opposition politicians, a chief minister and a federal cabinet minister of the previous pro-Musharraf government, were publicly thrashed, raising doubts about government control over law and order in the country.

So far, Musharraf has accepted his diminishing stature quietly — though he has few other options. The new political leadership, both inside and outside the parliament, has been carefully avoiding a head-on collision with the president.

Interestingly, in the midst of the political transition, Musharraf embarked on a week-long visit to China to lobby for construction of an oil and gas pipeline between China and the Arabian Gulf that would be routed through Pakistan. The deeper question raised by this proposal is whether Musharraf meant to convey a message to the US that Pakistan's priorities were shifting.

The revival of democratic politics in Pakistan will undoubtedly affect Pakistan-US relations. Pakistan's military links with America appear to remain on a sound footing, so the strategic alliance with the US is likely to continue, perhaps with some nuanced differences over how to fight the "war on terror." But Pakistani politicians are bound to be influenced by domestic public opinion, which is generally critical of the US policies.

Nevertheless, long-term US interests in the region will be better served if Pakistan's democratic forces successfully establish themselves. A proposal in the US Senate to increase development and education aid to Pakistan could help in winning the hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has said that "if another September 11-style attack is being planned, it probably is being plotted in Pakistan and not Afghanistan." Whether this American intelligence assessment is based on credible information is unknown. American election-year politics may also be behind this assertion. But it is significant that Bush decided to voice this view during Pakistan's political transition.

Pakistan must take this view seriously, regardless of Bush's motivations. The new government should quickly devise a policy to deal with terrorism. Recent months have seen dozens of suicide bombings and other terrorist activities — the price of Pakistan's own past blunders, as well as those of the West. Afghanistan is a prime example, as is the failure to settle the Kashmir imbroglio with India. Both failures have strengthened domestic terrorist groups.

Pakistan's government appears to be preparing to talk to some of the extremists in the tribal areas, introduce political reforms, and redouble development efforts. But reference to "talks" makes the West uncomfortable. American officials have likened this strategy to negotiating with terrorists, and point to a previous round of negotiations that did nothing to stop violence in the tribal areas.

But the new leadership wants to distinguish between Al Qaeda terrorists and religious conservatives and disillusioned Pashtun youth within Pakistan. After all, the victory of the secular Awami National Party (ANP) in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province is a strong indication that people there have rejected religious political forces and violence.

This window of opportunity can be expanded through dialogue and reconciliation with those who are ready to disavow extremism and militancy. The new Pakistani government needs to explain this to the West in order to keep its support.

The US, meanwhile, should end direct military strikes in the area, even if these are conducted with the knowledge and cooperation of Pakistan's military. Force has never worked with the Pashtun tribes, and there is no evidence that this has changed. There are real signs that the new government is considered a credible partner in the tribal areas. It needs to be given time to find a way out of the endless cycle of violence.

Hassan Abbas, a Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, is author of Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America's War on Terror. This article has been distributed by Project Syndicate

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