The Bomb and the Taliban

Published November 16, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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Distant though it may seem from our day-to-day reality, Pakistan’s sudden descent into political chaos this month presents America and the West with a diplomatic and security challenge unlike any other on our crisis-ridden horizon. Simply put, the world’s second-largest Muslim nation — and the only one with nuclear weapons — is teetering on the brink. The nightmare scenario that has gripped us for years, of nuclear weapons someday coming into the hands of an extremist regime — we usually think of Iran — is now an immediate possibility.

Our reply — a consensus response uniting the Bush administration with its fiercest critics in the human rights community — is to push for speedy elections and renewed democracy. That’s a recipe we’ve tried repeatedly in unstable Muslim countries. Alas, the results speak for themselves.

Pakistan’s crisis erupted last spring with a domestic challenge to the legitimacy of the country’s military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. Alert readers will recall that he was the guy George W. Bush couldn’t identify during the 2000 presidential campaign. Now he’s a crucial ally in our country’s war against terrorism.

As the challenge mounted this fall, Musharraf responded by suspending the constitution and ruling by decree. This has inflamed his foes in the legal system and the press and has galvanized the sleepy political opposition. Now the general is fighting for his political life.

The chattering classes in the West, tut-tutting over our alliance with a dictator, have taken up the call for Musharraf to hold free and fair elections. It’s widely assumed that a clean ballot would result in victory for the main democratic political parties, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. They took turns governing all through Pakistan’s years of civilian rule in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, until Musharraf’s 1999 coup. Polls show them leading now.

But that assumption ignores much of Pakistan’s history and current reality. Its democracy has been notoriously unstable. Created in 1947 when British-ruled India was partitioned into Hindu and Muslim states, Pakistan is less a nation than a collection of squabbling tribes, held together by force and governed by a thin layer of Westernized elites. More than half its 60-year history has been spent under military dictatorship.

Today, the prospects for stable democracy are slimmer than ever. The central government’s reach does not extend far beyond the biggest cities. Much of the countryside is in a state of permanent insurgency, partly tribal in nature, partly jihadist. Islamic fundamentalists, led by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces expelled from Afghanistan in 2001, rule large swaths of the north, and the government is in retreat.

If Musharraf gives up his dictatorial powers and holds a free election in the months ahead, it is possible that a democratic government will emerge, tied more firmly than ever to the West and the fight against terrorism. At least as likely, however, is an unstable coalition of bickering opposition groups that gradually loses ground to the jihadists in the provinces. Sooner or later, it’s entirely possible that the fundamentalists will come to power, whether by ballot or bullet, and take control of Pakistan’s government and military. And its atom bombs.

The Bush administration has been pushing for democracy and elections in tottering Muslim nations since 2000 as its favored tool for rolling back fundamentalist rage. It’s backfired every place it’s been tried. Fundamentalist and jihadist groups have won votes and secured a place at the table — or full control — in every election they’ve contested, in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. The result is a Middle East that’s angrier, more extreme and more violent than ever. And none of those victories puts the fundamentalists in control of a nuclear arsenal.

America and its allies have a very delicate task ahead of them in Pakistan. Working too closely and transparently with a dictator, in a naked attempt to prop up an ally, could put us on the wrong side of an inevitable popular uprising. We’ve made that mistake before, in the shah’s Iran, Somoza’s Nicaragua and elsewhere.

No, we cannot stand by as democrats are crushed on our watch. We must use our power for good, and we must be seen to do so. But we must not — we cannot — repeat our failed experiments and risk handing the bomb to the Taliban.

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