Pakistan strongman Pervez Musharraf’s decision yesterday to postpone parliamentary elections for six weeks in the wake of the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month is certainly controversial, but at least it gives the United States and other democratic friends and allies of Pakistan in the developed and developing world a chance to ensure those elections are free and fair.
Amid rising political tensions between the two main opposition parties, lawyers and human rights activists, and Musharraf’s unpopular and undemocratic government, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and indigenous Islamist terrorist groups are all exploiting the opportunity to sow further chaos and political unrest in the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country. But the real opportunity now is for the democratic countries of the world to step forward with real plans and real commitments to see that free and fair elections put Pakistan back on the road to democracy.
The United States, working with allies in Europe and Muslim-majority countries, needs to quietly pressure Musharraf to take a number of critical steps akin to his decision yesterday—under immense international and domestic pressure—to ask Britain’s Scotland Yard to help investigate the Bhutto assassination. Among those steps:
• Establish a more balanced caretaker government comprised of Pakistan’s leading democratic and civil institutions to lead the country before the February 18 elections
• Restore the judiciary purged from the bench by Musharraf prior to Bhutto’s assassination
• Release the lawyers jailed by Musharraf for protesting his purge of the judiciary
• Appoint a balanced electoral commission to ensure the February vote is clean and transparent
• Invite international monitors from democratic nations in the developed and developing world to observe the elections
• Remove unnecessary restrictions placed on independent Pakistani domestic election monitors
Above all, the United States and its allies must ensure that Musharraf does not use the next six weeks to clamp down on all opposition in the name of fighting terror. Threats from terrorist networks are very real in Pakistan, of course. Al Qaeda’s top leadership is probably on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Pakistan experiences almost daily suicide bombings or attacks by groups tied to global terrorist networks, and the lawless zone of instability on Pakistan’s western border contributes to the growing strife in Afghanistan— the mission left unaccomplished when the Bush administration began the Iraq war in 2003.
But Musharraf’s claim to be fighting terrorism at home has very little to do with the terrorists and much more to do with his desire to hold onto power. When Musharraf imposed martial law late last year before reversing course under intense international and domestic pressure, he claimed he did so to fight terrorism. Yet the brunt of the emergency law’s effects was felt by secular human rights activists, judges who were probably going to rule against Musharraf’s re-election earlier this year, and lawyers protesting the repeated violations of the rule of law.
Pakistani military operations do continue in certain parts of the northern part of the country to ferret out extremist groups challenging the authority of the Pakistani government, but there is no clear evidence that the state of emergency made a dent in the overall extremist Islamist problem. After all, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was attacked twice and murdered in the second attack in about two months, yet many top Al Qaeda leaders have used Pakistan’s territory for a safe haven for more than six years. This should give Americans pause.
What’s more, the release and escape of numerous terrorist detainees—most recently the escape last month of terrorist suspect Rashid Rauf from police custody in Islamabad— should raise red flags. It is not at all clear that the postponed elections will be any more effective in tackling these terrorist threats.
In fact, Musharraf seems to be taking a page from President Bush’s playbook from 2002 to 2007—use the real threat posed by terrorist organizations as a political wedge issue to bludgeon opponents and to grab more executive power at the expense of other branches of government. Though more extreme and unvarnished than what Bush did in the United States, Musharraf seems to have learned lessons all too well from Bush’s actions: unilaterally declare executive powers because of extraordinary circumstances, seek to quell opponents by painting them as in the same camp as terrorists, and flood the airwaves with a message of fear in a desperate attempt to cover up what has been essentially a pretty poor record at bringing terrorists to justice.
In the United States, a country with stronger democratic institutions and a generally free press, the system may be gradually correcting itself from these overreaches of executive authority. But Pakistan, a country that has spent more than half of its 60 years of independence under military rule, could probably use some outside help from those who say they support freedom, human rights, and democracy.
That’s why the steps outlined above are critical to the stability of Pakistan. The Bush administration and above all our nation’s democratic allies need to present a united front when pressuring Musharraf to do what’s right for his country, not what’s best for his personal political gain.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. To speak with him please contact:
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For Katulis’s other dispatches from Pakistan, see his posts at tpmcafe.com