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What happens in Pakistan matters in the rest of the world.

The political murder of Benazir Bhutto, and many of her supporters at the same time, shocked Pakistan and the world. Why is Pakistan of such significance to the rest of the world? What should the policy of the United States be in the short-run?

Pakistan is a significant Muslim country. It has highly sensitive borders with Afghanistan, China, India and Iran. It is a nuclear power thanks to Ali Bhutto, the late Benazir Bhutto’s father. It is a country where tolerance is being challenged by fundamentalism spilling out of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It is a place where democracy has often been challenged by military rule but where the aspiration for democracy is still alive. It has a President, Pervez Musharraf, who chairs the National Security Council, and who is supported internally by the army and externally by the United States. His government started out well on reform issues but he is widely regarded as weak, vacillating and running out of support. It is a country that the Economist newspaper recently described, with some justification, as ‘The world’s most dangerous place’. It is a place where democratic elections have been postponed for another six weeks as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. It is a country in which the biggest single party is drifting. Pakistan as a country matters to the Muslim world; to its neighbors because of its growing potential for instability; to the United States and the West because of al-Qaeda and the Taliban; and to domestic politics the UK where the cities of Birmingham and Bradford, for example, have large populations of Pakistani origin.

United States policy towards Pakistan has been inconsistent. Pakistan was initially seen as undemocratic. It was then seen as a potential ally in the ‘War against Terror’. This meant military and civilian aid and the suspension of economic sanctions. The United States cooperated with the regime, strongly supporting the drive against the Taliban and only gently, so it seems, calling for a return to democracy. The United States supported the return of Benazir Bhutto but failed, tragically, as did the Pakistan government, to provide for her protection. Pakistanis, particularly, but not uniquely, the middle-classes, long for democracy but civilian rule has all too frequently become mired in corruption and inefficiency, as was the case with Benazir Bhutto’s terms in office.

At the same time, according to Stephen P. Cohen, the United States seems to demand a lot in terms of security issues and changed international policies from a government that is essentially weak. Pakistan is a developing country beset with regional problems. It is not clear that the United States has a consistent set of simple and achievable objectives guiding its policy towards Pakistan. It has expected too little by way of democratic reform and too much by way of security and changed foreign policy. Given the limitations of the government and what government in any society can effectively achieve during periods of social or religious change, the United States needs to focus its policy. The single best hope, for democracy and stability, the secular and pro-western Benazir Bhutto, has been removed from the scene. This does mean that all hope is gone. Bhutto’s son told the world that, in his mother’s words, ‘Democracy is the best revenge’. If the elections can meet the usual ‘fair’ and ‘free’ criteria the country’s direction will be determined by popular vote and fundamentalists will be tested and most likely constrained by more popular parties. In the short-run, the United States should exercise whatever influence it has upon Musharraf in order to reign in his own security forces, seen by many commentators as propagating unrest in their own interest. John Edwards, according the Pakistan News, suggested that ‘we have to hold his feet to the fire’ because of broken promises in the past. This has to be done with care for the army top brass must be carried along too. There should be no independent US military action in Pakistan’s sensitive border areas.

Comments

All excellent points - happenings in Pakistan are extremely relevant to the region, the UK and the US for the reasons described above and more.

I wonder what the prospects are for free and fair elections - will Musharraf allow much campaigning? Also, I wonder about the independence of the judiciary should any elections dispute come to court - Musharraf has made it clear that he will not tolerate "wrong decisions."

On an unrelated note, are you planning to do an entry on the situation in Kenya? I would be very interested in reading your take on it.

Electioneering has been less active than it was before Bhutto was murdered. The Government had called for no large-scale political meetings, for security reasons, though there has been electioneering on a door-to-door basis. Electioneering must stop by law by midnight on the 16th February. Perhaps any Pakistan visitors to this web site may wish to let us know more.