The American flag is burning again in Pakistan. Angry masses are protesting the recent remarks made by Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama to deploy US soldiers on Pakistani territories and to take unilateral action based on intelligence inside Pakistan. Senator Obama’s comments echo growing consensus among policy makers about Pakistan’s commitment to fighting Al-Qa’eda and the need to demand “results” from Pakistan.
Conventional wisdom maintains that Pakistan is teetering on the brink of extremism and that the authoritarian regime of Pervez Musharraf is our only hope of preventing a nuclear-capable militant Islamic state from emerging in South Asia. This is the understanding with which the Bush Administration has proceeded since 2001. The difference now is that we are moving towards a unilateral approach.
This conventional wisdom was wrong before and is dangerously wrong now. It ignores the significant contributions made by Pakistan in capturing or killing the majority of Al-Qa’eda leadership. It also ignores the salient facts that Pakistan has time and again rejected traditionalist Islamic parties within its political spectrum - who have never managed to garner more than a few percentage of electoral votes - and that a robust consensus exists in Pakistan against militancy and extremism in Islam. Last month, we saw protests across Pakistan against the radicalization of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid mosque. Unilateral actions, or the mere threat of it, can destabilize not only the US-Pakistan strategic alliance but derail the tentative steps Pakistan has recently taken towards democracy.
On July 20th, 2007, a pivotal decision in Pakistan’s civil and political history came from its Supreme Court. It reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who had been summarily dismissed by Pervez Musharraf on March 9th, 2007, almost certainly because Chaudhry had authorized investigations into the “disappearances” of civilians at the hands of military intelligence branch of the Army. Subsequently, the Court ordered the release of many political prisoners – most notably the opposition leader Javed Hashmi who was jailed in 2003 for criticizing Pervez Musharraf.
This triumph of independent judicial oversight and civil society over military power came only after thousands of lawyers, civil officers and professionals led the march into the streets in support of Chaudhry. Soon enough, thousands became hundreds of thousands and the cause of Chaudhry became a cause for democracy across Pakistan. The news media withstood state violence and censorship and refused to shut down their coverage.
These are encouraging signs of democracy that we need to explicitly support. Longtime observers of Pakistan’s history will remember that in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, we provided material and political support to the erstwhile Islamist dictator General Zia ul Haq, as part of the Cold War raging in Afghanistan against Soviet forces. But, we Americans abandoned Pakistan throughout the 1990s -- which crippled the democratic and civilian governments and strengthened militarization and Talibanization in the region. We must not repeat this history. Our current support for the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, and threats of military deployment or sanctions is, thus, exactly the wrong strategy both for our long-term global interests and for the people of Pakistan.
Our anxiety and mistrust for our most valuable ally in the global war on terrorism comes from the same fear and incomprehension with which we perceive the broader Muslim world. Our news coverage, after all, shows us little besides faces contorted into masks of rage, mosques turned into fortresses of hate, and the aftermath of yet another bomb blast. Our support for “democratization” will remain nominal until we learn to look beyond the dictates of conventional wisdom and the confines of a pre-destined clash of civilizations. We must know, understand, trust and dialogue with the global community of Muslims
Instead of reducing this sprawling, diverse, multi-denominational and multi-cultural nation to nothing more than a caricature of its madrasas and tribal chieftans, US policy must explicitly support immediate and full democracy in Pakistan. As we continue to insist on a flat, binary world of those with us or against us; as we continue to distrust those masses populating the streets of Pakistan; as we continue to believe that the only outcome to an election in Pakistan will be power for the extremists, we ignore the birth of a real and pure movement for democracy – and we ignore it at our peril.
We have to practice what we preach. Our weapons against extremism are democracy, civil society, a free press and the rule of law, not support for military dictators.
Also, please see WSJ's Reversal of Fortune
Pakistan's once--and future?--prime minister on her imminent return home in which Bhutto discusses Barack Obama's recent comments as well as the threat of extremism in Pakistan. Her prescription is clear-eyed:
The remedy to all this, says Ms. Bhutto, is democracy, plain and simple. She does not believe that Pakistani society has become more illiberal in its political outlook, despite the almost metastatic growth of radical madrassas (religious schools) in recent years. On the contrary, she argues that the increasing--and increasingly unrestrained--power of militants to compel or kill ordinary people to get what they want has created a huge backlash, one that could make itself felt at the ballot box if people are given the chance to vote their consciences.