By Paul Shrivastava

The nightmare of nuclear-armed Pakistan with its population of 160 million falling to Islamist extremists is now underway. If the United States does not intervene to restore democracy, in a year or two the country will be in the hands of radical Islamists, sworn to oppose the U.S. agenda in Southeast Asia, and armed with nuclear weapons.

Pakistan was created as a home for Muslims at the time of Indian independence from Britain. Its creation through the partition of India was a bloody affair. Millions of Hindus and Muslims were killed in communal riots after the partition. That tragedy has not entirely been forgotten, and it continues to shape the national consciousness of both countries. Pakistan is a Muslim "holy land" (Pak means "pure" or "holy" in Urdu, and the capital city, Islamabad, means the City of Islam), with clearly Muslim sensibilities and a sharia-guided legal system.

To their credit, the majority of Pakistanis remained moderate and did not become jihadist extremists. Jihadist tendencies were confined to a small minority - at least until the war against terrorism started in 2001.

Increasingly radicalized
In the last six years the moderates have become increasingly radicalized. Sympathies toward jihadists have grown alarmingly. Pakistan served as a base for the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and was a staunch ally of the United States. President Pervez Musharraf remains a key partner of the United States. His unpopular decisions, policies and accommodations to the United States have changed the Pakistani public's opinion of the war against terrorism, and increased its sympathy toward jihadists and opposition to the United States.

Musharraf has lost the support of the moderate middle for several reasons. First, his authority, originating from a military coup, was considered illegitimate from the beginning by moderates who have yearned for democratic governance. He has kept his grip on power by systematically thwarting democratic institutions and laws and manipulating elections.

Musharraf invited the wrath of the religious right with the July 2007 storming of Islamabad's Red Mosque. By attacking tribal groups sympathizing with the Taliban in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, home to three million people, Musharraf has alienated not just the tribes living in the area, but a large number of sympathizers living elsewhere in Pakistan. Political parties with ideological sympathies toward the Taliban won 11 percent of the popular vote in the 2002 general elections. If elections were held today, that number could easily be more than 40 percent.

Contested in courts
Musharraf's recent election as president was boycotted by all opposition political parties, and is being contested in courts. As the Supreme Court prepared to declare his candidacy for president (while also the chief of the army) unconstitutional, he sacked the chief justice and the entire court and declared a state of emergency.

There is not even pretense among the moderates that the Musharraf government is legitimate. Pakistan has drifted into radicalism, and the jihadists now own the moral high ground. It is only a matter of time before they come to power through street-level violence and whatever future electoral process Musharraf may allow. And when that happens, U.S. officials will wonder why another friendly government went south.

Backing illegitimate governments because they serve our short-term interests is politically expedient but not sound foreign policy. This approach failed in Iran, where we installed a friendly shah as the monarch in the 1950s in a new, faltering democracy only to end up with an Islamic revolution 20 years later. By supporting Musharraf's government with about $10 billion in aid since 2001, the United States is inextricably tied to the crushing of democracy in Pakistan.

Free elections
There is still time for the United States to turn things around in Pakistan and support the forces of democracy. First, it should immediately suspend all aid to Musharraf's government. Second, the United States and its allies must insist that Pakistan hold free elections open to all political parties. Elections need to be fair and peaceful and monitored by international representatives. And third, the United States should seek the support of a broader regional network including India, China and Iran to ensure the stability of Pakistan during the chaotic transition to democracy that lies ahead.

(Paul Shrivastava is the Howard I. Scott chair and professor of management at Bucknell University. His studies include the globalization of economics and politics in India and Pakistan.)

Posted Nov. 13, 2007

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