Hope is on the rise in Pakistan: Shuja Nawaz in Boston Globe

Hope is on the rise in Pakistan By Shuja Nawaz
Boston Globe, March 1, 2008

AFTER THE recent elections in Pakistan that were marked by their relative peace and the return of the two leading parties that dominated the scene before General Pervez Musharraf's coup in 1999, some commentators in the United States fear that a civilian government and a more assertive parliament will be less willing to fight America's "war on terror" than Musharraf. They are also concerned that the new government might be affected by the generally anti-US sentiment that appears to have gained ground in Pakistan. Such views are based on false assumptions and are likely to confuse Pakistanis into thinking that elements in the United States prefer to deal with autocrats rather than popularly elected governments. The people of Pakistan seem to have more confidence in the changes that have occurred than their erstwhile friends in the United States. While the noise of parliamentary democracy rises in Pakistan, hope is also on the rise.

Witness the recent surge in the Karachi Stock Exchange index to a record level this week. Consider also the statements from the leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group, the Muttahidda Qaumi Movement, and the Awami National Party about their commitment to the return to democracy and their desire to make it work. Even the Pakistan Muslim League-Q that supported Musharraf has agreed to serve as the loyal opposition. The people are not coming out into the streets, although they may have good reason to do so, especially if Musharraf decides to hang on to an effective presidential system of rule built on a series of fiats of dubious legality.

Musharraf's virtual martial law since he took over in 1999 has left the political system weakened. The challenge for the new government will be to steer the country back to civilian supremacy. The resurging parties have been helped in the elections by the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who appears determined to return the military to the barracks and recognizes that civilian government is the best option for Pakistan.

What of the anti-US sentiment? Musharraf agreed to do America's bidding after Sept. 11, 2001, on the basis of a fictional threat of a US attack without consulting the people of Pakistan or their representatives. He did not even consult his corps commanders, who were simply told that he had agreed to the US demands and was doing a volte face on support for the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. Over time, the antipathy toward Musharraf translated into a drop of popularity for the Pakistan army. From being the most popular national institution at upwards of 80 percent approval it fell to a low of 55 percent over the past two years. Because of Musharraf's policies, the army is now the target of wanton suicide bombings. No wonder it wants to go back to the barracks.

The people of Pakistan showed their appreciation of the United States after the massive earthquake relief work in late 2005. But that goodwill was soon lost after it became clear that the US administration was following a "pro-Musharraf policy" and not a "pro-Pakistan policy." The United States appeared to ignore the desire of the people of Pakistan for a free and independent judiciary, unfettered news media, and a voice in how Pakistan would be run. This gave comfort to Musharraf and made him overconfident, enough to declare that his Pakistan Muslim League-Q would form the next government. The election results on Feb. 18 turned that wishful thinking to naught.

Today, Pakistan is returning to a democratic system. It will need to turn back all the arbitrarily imposed hurdles to democracy by the Musharraf regime. The politicians in the past have succumbed to the temptations of pelf and power. This time, the people of Pakistan hope they will remain true to their stated aim to restore democracy and show the lie to those cynics who believe that civilians will fold into the hands of the militants and Talibanization will take over Pakistan. Pakistan remains committed to the war on terror not because it is in the US interest but because it is in Pakistan's own interest to defeat the enemy within.

Its nuclear assets are in safe hands. Its army is committed to supporting the civilian government and likely will not allow it to resile from the fight against militancy. The country has a rejuvenated middle class and professionals who have helped put it on the path to economic growth. Sustaining that trajectory is critical to keeping Pakistan's polity stable. There is no place for an autocrat in that scenario, no matter how well intentioned he may once have been.

Pakistan's friends in the United States and elsewhere must help the country restore the constitution to its original form, restore the judiciary, free the media, and make it a bulwark of democracy in one of the world's toughest neighborhoods. That would be the best result for the United States in the long run.

Shuja Nawaz is author of the forthcoming "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its army, and the Wars Within."

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