A Militant Pakistan Remains Unlikely
By STEPHEN GRAHAM
The Associated Press: Published in Washington Post, July 8, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is fighting to maintain control of Pakistan in the face of rising Islamic militancy and a secular pro-democracy movement.
A key U.S. ally, Musharraf himself remains under threat, most recently on Friday, when unknown suspects opened fire from a rooftop after his plane took off from a military base.
For some in the West, an exit _ especially a violent one _ for the military strongman conjures up a scenario of Pakistan and its nuclear weapons falling into militant hands.
But for the moment, moderate, pro-Western forces appear far stronger than radical Islamists, and would likely emerge victorious from the turmoil that could follow the president's removal.
Islamist parties have never scored higher than 12 percent in a general election. And while there are real concerns that the government has lost control of territory near the Afghan border, there is no sign that senior military commanders sympathize with the extremists there, even though Pakistan once supported the Taliban.
Musharraf said his decision to side with the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks served Pakistan's national interest, and a civilian ruler would likely have come to the same conclusion, Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, wrote in a recent issue of Pakistan's Friday Times weekly devoted to post-Musharraf scenarios.
If the general were to exit the scene, some expect the army to quickly stage-manage a return to full civilian rule, just as it did following the country's two earlier periods under a military president.
The powerful generals would retain strong influence with any coalition government formed by moderate parties expected to dominate after the elections.
The generals would also be eager to keep billions of dollars in post-9/11 military and economic aid flowing from Washington, Curtis said.
"We don't think that after Musharraf the extremists or the fundamentalists will take over," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is widely expected to make a political comeback after year-end elections.
"Pakistan's electoral history proves that the religious parties have never gained that kind of strength that they can rule the country. but Gen. Musharraf is deliberately promoting this view," Babar said. "He wants to give the impression that, 'After me, the whole structure will collapse.'"
The bloody army siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque _ in which at least 24 people have died _ so far has fueled concern about the threat posed by Islamic extremism to Pakistan's stability.
Musharraf's allies insist that the president, who has refused to give up his role as army chief because the country needed strong leadership, is an unrivaled fighter against militant groups operating in several regions of Pakistan.
"He is the man behind the gun. The terrorists and extremists, al-Qaida and Taliban, all consider that he is giving him a very tough time and that is why they are doing their best to attempt on his life," Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid said.
Many critics, however, accuse Musharraf of manipulating flare-ups like the ongoing showdown in the capital, where thousands of security forces are trying to prise an unknown number of militants from the mosque, to polish his image as a bulwark against extremism.
Newspapers are praising Musharraf for finally cracking down on the Red Mosque, where radicals had tried to impose Taliban-style rule on the capital. His critics say he could have acted earlier.
Where supporters and detractors agree is that, since seizing power in a 1999 coup, the military president has accrued such overarching authority that his removal could lead to chaos.
"Musharraf happens to be at the center of the system he has created," The Nation, a Lahore-based newspaper, said in an editorial on Sunday that urged Musharraf to ensure that the upcoming elections are free and fair to avoid political mayhem. "If something happens to the cornerstone, the entire structure is bound to collapse like a house of cards."
President Bush made clear last month that Musharraf's cooperation against terrorism was more important to the U.S. than his willingness to restore democracy.
Yet there are also signs of growing impatience among U.S. officials and lawmakers with Musharraf's limited success in uprooting Taliban and al-Qaida militants from mountains along Pakistan's western border, which serve as a launch pad for attacks on NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
A widely expected solution _ and one sure to enrage Islamic hard-liners _ would see Musharraf, the man who turned on the Taliban, share power with Bhutto, a woman who has vowed to outdo him in anti-terrorist zeal.
© 2007 The Associated Press