Twilight of the Dictators: A Chance for Pakistan — and the U.S.
Editorial, February 20, 2008, New York Times
After years of American enabling and billions in American aid, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, was — to put it delicately — trounced in Monday’s parliamentary elections. The results are much better than the United States could hope for, and more than President Bush deserved after overinvesting in the former general and his anti-democratic excesses.
The White House has long insisted that there was no choice but to look the other way as Mr. Musharraf jailed journalists and lawyers, dismissed the Supreme Court and declared emergency rule. Islamist extremists, we were told, would win any fair democratic fight.
Instead, even with a rigged system, the moderates managed to win. Now the question is whether the Bush administration can take this opportunity and develop a sensible policy that focuses both on building stable democratic institutions in Pakistan and winning popular support for combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Even with all that American money — and the advice of an American public relations firm — Mr. Musharraf could not overcome a tidal wave of popular contempt. His party lost overwhelmingly to two moderate opposition parties: the Pakistan Peoples Party of the assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Pakistan now faces a period of uncertainty as all the players jockey for position. Mr. Musharraf has rejected calls to step aside as president, but Parliament could yet force him out. That’s a decision for Pakistan’s elected representatives to make — without Washington’s intervention.
President Bush must quickly reach out to Pakistan’s newly elected parliamentary leaders, many of whom resent the United States for its uncritical support of the former general. Mr. Bush could calm some of their anger by publicly warning to Mr. Musharraf that the United States will not tolerate any further political meddling.
The Bush administration must also encourage Pakistan’s coup-prone military to work with the new parliamentary leaders, making clear that continued military aid will in part be conditioned on their respect for democracy. Mr. Musharraf’s successor as army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, deserves credit for ensuring that the military did not interfere in the elections. We hope that he continues that sound course.
Make no mistake, Mr. Musharraf’s support for the war on terrorism was never as unstinting as Washington claimed. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have found far too comfortable a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Still, persuading Pakistan’s new civilian leaders to sign on to the fight is likely to prove even more difficult.
On Tuesday, some of those politicians were already talking about the need for more dialogue and less military confrontation with the extremists. The Bush administration will have to work hard to persuade them — and the Pakistani people — that this is not just Washington’s fight. These extremists are also a direct threat to Pakistan and its hopes for democracy.
Washington can start by sending a clear message that it cares about Pakistan’s people and that it will do a lot more to build up its schools, courts and political parties. The lesson of the last six years — and Mr. Musharraf’s defeat — is undeniable: without popular support, there will be no stability in Pakistan and no hope of defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban.