There’s another election happening this month that may be as important to Americans as Super Tuesday. I refer to parliamentary elections on Feb. 18 in Pakistan.
Pakistani elections will play a crucial role in that country’s ability to combat a growing threat from jihadis. Even as progress has been made in combating al-Qaida in Iraq, the organization has been sinking deeper roots in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.
Thousands of Taliban, and other militants, are also based there and are setting off suicide bombs in Pakistan’s cities. Jihadis probably killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the civilian leader most committed to fighting them if her party won the elections. And unlike Iraq, Pakistan is a country with nukes.
The country has become further destabilized by the political machinations of President Pervez Musharraf. He’s been stumping Europe’s capitals and the Davos World Economic Forum trying to convince the world’s leaders he will permit free and fair elections. His message: Elections don’t really matter, because only he can secure Pakistan.
Don’t believe it. The elections do matter, and the White House had better be prepared for a post-Musharraf Pakistan.
I say that even though Musharraf put on a strong show at Davos, appearing on two panels and giving one very long and impassioned breakfast presentation. With his British accent and crisp military bearing, he made a strong impression on rooms packed with CEOs from America, Europe and Asia, especially because Pakistan’s economy has improved during his tenure.
Musharraf admitted no mistakes, not in permitting the jihadi insurgency to grow on his watch, nor in sacking his Supreme Court when it was about to rule his re-election unconstitutional. “There is a degree of misperception about Pakistan,” he insisted at the Davos breakfast. “We are the victims since 1979.”
He blamed the growth of the jihadi threat, with some justification, on U.S. and Saudi funding in the 1980s for Islamic militants in Afghanistan. The militants were fighting against Soviet occupation. After Soviet troops left, those militants morphed into al-Qaida; the chaos in Afghanistan also spawned the growth of the Taliban.
“After 1989, everyone left the scene,” Musharraf said, “including the United States. We were used and we were ditched.” He never mentioned that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies helped the Taliban and other radical groups, as a hedge against India.
Pakistan is now suffering the blowback from its own actions, as these militants align themselves with al-Qaida. Critics also charge that the jihadis still have sympathizers within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. Musharraf denied this.
“The deliberate nurturing of jihadism by the state,” says well-known Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, “has … produced extremism inside parts of the military and intelligence.” Hoodbhoy worries such penetration could compromise Pakistan’s protection for its nukes.
Musharraf also denied he had violated the constitution by sacking the judges. And he insisted that Pakistan’s elections would be free and fair. He was asked whether he might reinstate the judges to restore confidence in the electoral system (since any violations will be appealed to the courts). He retorted sharply: “Don’t impose Western human-rights considerations and standards on the whole world. Pakistan has a different environment.”
What Musharraf did not convey is the anger that the sacking of the court has aroused across Pakistan. This adds to the host of grievances, some contradictory, that a broad majority of the public now holds against him: that economic gains don’t benefit the poor, that he is too pro-American, that he may have conspired in Bhutto’s murder. (This is highly unlikely, but many of her supporters think it is so.)
So Pakistan’s elections have become a litmus test for an increasingly unpopular leader. No one will believe the elections aren’t rigged. If opposition parties don’t receive a majority, their followers are likely to go to the streets. Musharraf will try to carry on and divide the opposition. Political instability will make it harder to fight the jihadis. Some Pakistanis tell me the army, at some point, will have to tell Musharraf he must go. This is not something the United States can, or should, push for, but it seems likely.
So Americans should be watching the Pakistani elections, and the post-election, for signs of what will come after Musharraf. The central fight against al-Qaida will depend on the results.