IN RETURN FOR cooperation in the war on terror since 9/11, the United States has provided Pakistan's military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, with billions of dollars in aid and almost total support in his quest to remain president — until recently.
Eight years after seizing power in a coup, Musharraf is trying to grab five more years through political manipulation and blatant coercion. However, even as he rewrote it, the Pakistani Constitution prohibits him from being president unless he stops being army chief.
That would normally be a minor irritant, easily ignored. But the ground is shifting under Musharraf's feet. Pakistanis are turning out in mass demonstrations led by lawyers whose tolerance for Musharraf has been replaced with a newfound regard for the rule of law. The slogan on the street: "The U.S. has a pet dog in Pakistan — he wears a uniform."
One cause of this turnabout is Musharraf's clumsy attempt to fire the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, in March. The judge has had the temerity to rule against the government in key cases, so in an election year, he could not be trusted to legitimize Musharraf's bid to remain president.
Musharraf's difficulties have caught the Bush administration flat-footed. But his fall from grace should not have come as a surprise. The general's rule has seen the Pakistani military engage in abuse, brutality and greed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Musharraf's political adversaries have disappeared. Some, as Human Rights Watch has documented, have been sent to secret CIA-controlled detention facilities. But many more, unconnected to the war on terror, remain in the hands of the Pakistani military's feared Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Pakistani journalists are regularly threatened, beaten and tortured — and several have been killed. Moderate political parties, which command an overwhelming share of the popular vote, have seen their leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, hounded into exile. Political activists have been harassed and jailed for not accepting Musharraf's supremacy. Such brutal repression has triggered an insurgency in mineral-rich Baluchistan province and helped push the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan into the embrace of the Taliban.
Yet the Bush administration, fearful of radical Islamists, has rebuffed experts who have urged a return to civilian rule in Pakistan.
There were signs of change. On June 12, the U.S. finally challenged the Musharrafian construction of democracy. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack pointed out that the general had pledged to "put aside" his uniform and that the U.S. expected him to "follow through on his commitments." Washington also dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher to Pakistan, where he met with opposition leaders and called for free elections.
But within days, McCormack seemed to be eating his words, declaring Musharraf an agent for "positive change" in Pakistan. "He is the one who had pledged to resolve this issue of the uniform and holding civilian office," McCormack said. "It's not a condition of the United States. It's a self-imposed condition by President Musharraf."
The United States should stop fearing the future without a general in charge in Pakistan and come out unequivocally in support of democracy. Radical Islam would not win the day if Musharraf were coaxed into retirement. Islamists have never polled more than 12% of the vote in national elections.
The Pakistani military has a long and well-documented history of prioritizing its economic empire, estimated to be worth at least $20 billion, over any ideological considerations. Paid by the U.S., it nurtured radical Islam in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — and then embraced just as quickly the opportunity to be paid to dismantle the same. Of course, putting that genie back in the bottle has proved difficult, but the effort guarantees continued U.S. political engagement and financial aid. Musharraf's successors — military and civilian — are unlikely to want to commit economic and political suicide by adopting radical Islamism.
It is time for the U.S. to insist on a return to civilian rule through free and fair elections, for which the return and participation of Pakistan's exiled political leaders are a prerequisite. Musharraf must take off his uniform and restore the presidency to its largely ceremonial constitutional role in a parliamentary democracy. Only then can he legitimately run for president by seeking election from a truly representative parliament.
As things stand, Pakistan's army, judiciary, political parties and even civil society are sullied by their association with Musharraf. The country must return to genuine civilian rule for these institutions to renew themselves and assume their rightful role in a healthy democracy.
If the Bush administration actually believes its high-minded rhetoric about the spread of democracy, there is no better place to start than Pakistan.
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