J.B. Sivanich

By all accounts the situation in Pakistan is a mess that is amplified by Pakistan’s geographical position — it’s situated next to Afghanistan and Iran — and its possession of nuclear weapons.In the past month, hundreds have died due to political violence and Islamic terrorism. General Pervez Musharraf, who also acts as President, has declared a “State of Emergency,” suspending the constitution and detaining over 2,000 dissenters. This move is a greedy power play — which is not surprising, since Musharraf first came to power through a bloodless coup — designed as a last-ditch effort for Musharraf to remain in power. Ever since March, when he unconstitutionally jailed an independent, pro-democracy jurist, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Musharraf’s approval rating has been falling and his control of the country dwindling.

This series of events cannot be accepted, and pressure must be on Musharraf to reinstate the constitution, re-establish freedom of speech and follow through with his promise to hold free elections within the next 90 days. To certain extent, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, who hinted at withholding aid before ultimately calling the action unlikely, are doing this. They claim that they cannot afford to withhold aid from Pakistan, whether it is controlled by Musharraf in a dictatorial state or not, because it would hamper the Pakistani military in its attempts to eradicate al-Qaeda and other Islamic militants.

President Bush counts General Musharraf as a key ally in the “War on Terror,” and though it is a great luxury to have a partner in the region willing to commit his troops to what many see as mainly an American problem, one must take a closer look at Musharraf’s ability to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In 2006, Musharraf agreed to a cease-fire with militants and extremists in the more mountainous tribal regions, which has led to what the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate described as a re-strengthening of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. He has released Taliban militants, including Mullah Obaidullah Akhund who is the highest-ranking Taliban official that Pakistan has ever caught, in a prisoner swap with an infamous tribal warlord and known Taliban supporter, Beitullah Mehsud, for 250 captured government troops. His approval rating (38 percent) has fallen below Osama Bin Laden’s (46 percent) among Pakistanis, which has further diminished his effectiveness. Many observers say that recently Musharraf has concentrated much harder on squashing out opposition and tightening his control than on combating militants.

President Bush, a strong advocate of spreading democracy, has said little in response to Musharraf’s latest anti-democratic measures — jailing protestors and shutting down independent media outlets — which is a sharp contrast from his criticism of the crackdown of Myanmar dissidents last month.

Bush has called on Musharraf to reinstate the constitution and hold popular elections, but more needs to be done, and if that means threatening to withhold aid, so be it. Popular elections provide the best hope for Pakistan, and a stable Pakistan provides the best hope for American success against al-Qaeda.

Some Western commentators fear that a Pakistan democracy would be taken over by Islamic extremists in a way similar to how Hamas, a radical Islamic group, took control of the Palestinian government in January of 2006. This is unfounded.

The biggest political party in Pakistan is Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), whose leader is former-Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who has just returned to Pakistan after spending eight years in exile.

At first glance, Bhutto appears to be a strikingly better alternative to Musharraf: she is pro-Western-English is her first language and she graduated from Harvard and Oxford-and has stated desires to move Pakistan closer to democracy with better rights for minorities. On a closer look, however, Bhutto seems to be more of the same. Her Pakistan was on par with Musharraf’s in terms of human rights violations, and corruption. She failed to pass a single piece of legislation in her first 20-month stint as Prime Minister. Her husband was charged with complicity in the murder of Bhutto’s brother who tried to overthrow her, and she is has been involved in multiple corruption cases.

Ms. Bhutto still carries popular support — her approval rating is at 63 percent, and is most likely rising due to her defiance of Musharraf — and her PPP is the most widely supported political party in Pakistan. Under current Pakistani law, Bhutto would be unable to run for Prime Minister since she has already exceeded the two-term limit. Despite this, however, Ms. Bhutto will probably have to play a strong part in returning Pakistan to democracy and will be instrumental in upcoming events as she is seen as Musharraf’s direct opponent.

The biggest problem with popular elections is their legitimacy. Pakistanis have little faith in their election process and for ample reason. Many members of the Pakistan Muslim League, which is led by former Prime Minister, Nawaz Shariff — who succeeded Bhutto and was overthrown by Musharraf — have already said they will boycott the elections to be held in January. Ms. Bhutto has threatened to do the same.

Musharraf remains the central concern for now though, as a military dictator who has never been popularly elected. Musharraf needs either to give up his role as the head of the military and run for popular election — Pakistani law disallows members of the military to be involved with politics — or to exit the Pakistani political scene altogether. The latter would be the better.

Though Ms. Bhutto has an appalling record, she serves as the best means for transition — assuming that she would win a popular election — until a new wave of leaders arrive. A return to democracy is the best option for the American fight against al-Qaeda, but more importantly for the future of Pakistan.