Fanning the Flames of Discontent
Why the turmoil in Pakistan should worry Washington
When President Bush talks about Pakistan's record in battling terrorism, he usually makes it very personal. In a frequent refrain, Bush says that Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf "understands that we are in a struggle against extremists who will use terror as a weapon. ... After all, they've tried to take his life." (Indeed, shots were fired at his airplane in an another apparent assassination attempt last week.)
There are increasing signs, however, that the Bush administration's decision to build so much of Washington's Pakistan policy around one man, Musharraf, could backfire. Today, the Army general and self-installed president is facing sustained protests that are being led by the country's educated middle class-America's most natural allies in Pakistan. "If the Bush administration continues to support the dictatorial regime, which has completely lost the public confidence, it will further fan extremism and fundamentalism," says Shameem Akhtar, the dean of management sciences at Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences in Quetta, Pakistan. "America should learn a lesson from Iran, where it has been paying the price for supporting an unpopular monarchy even after 28 years."
So far, the protestersled by the nation's lawyers clad in their dark suitshave not targeted the United States. But many in Pakistan's secular opposition parties are angry at what they see as U.S.support for a profoundly undemocratic regime and a reluctance to pressure Musharraf too hard on holding fair elections. Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup when he was chief of Army staff. He maneuvered himself into the presidency three years later but retained the powerful military post in violation of the Constitution. He ignited the current crisis in March when he tried to sack Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in an apparent bid to intimidate the court into blessing his re-election. The protests had been largely peaceful until May, when 40 people were killed as Musharraf loyalists tried to block Chaudhry's visit to Karachi.
Things could get even worse in the coming months. First, the Supreme Court is due to rule as early as this month on Musharraf's attempt to oust Chaudhry. Then, in the next few months, Musharraf is expected to announce that he will seek another term as president. Many diplomats worry that whatever he does to circumvent the Constitution and manipulate his re-election could spark an even more violent round of protests. Parliamentary elections are also due this year, and officials are accused of tampering with voter registration lists. "The protests we have seen so far could pale in comparison to the protests that could follow a rigged election," warns Benazir Bhutto, the leader of Pakistan's most popular opposition party who served twice as prime minister.
Up to now, U.S. support for Musharraf has been steady. For one thing, U.S. officials praise Musharraf for facilitating some of the most important captures of al Qaeda leaders, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Musharraf has long portrayed himself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in a tumultuous country, a claim that many now question. "We feel the present military regime has played up the threat of an Islamist takeover to frighten the international community into supporting a military regime," says Bhutto, who is trying to return to Pakistan from exile in London. "It has doled out, spoonful by spoonful, support for the war on terror, but that support has been very little, and we have seen large parts of Pakistan come under the sway of religious parties and the Taliban."