NEW DELHI — Despite making the spread of freedom the rallying cry of his second term, U.S. President George W. Bush has found it difficult to visit the world’s largest democracy, India, without also stopping to meet the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
In recent days Bush has called Musharraf “my buddy” and hailed his “vision for a democracy in Pakistan,” although the general has repeatedly broken his pledge to return Pakistan to democracy since grabbing power in a bloodless coup 6 1/2 years ago.
Indeed, Musharraf has marginalized mainstream political parties even as he has forged an alliance with Islamist groups and failed, as army chief and president, to end his military’s cozy ties with terrorist outfits.
Such is the physical danger that Bush and his entourage face in a country that U.S. officials allude to as the sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaida and Taliban leaders that the presidential team will dare not stay overnight in Pakistan, restricting itself to a largely daytime visit Saturday that ends with an evening state banquet.
This reflects poorly on a U.S. policy that has sunk billions of dollars since 9/11 alone to prop up Musharraf’s rule. In fact, by continuing to place all its bets on one individual, U.S. policy has only spurred greater discontent and militancy in Pakistan, making it more difficult to hunt down bin Laden and stem international terrorism.
Ironically, the consequence of that skewed approach — the failure to build a stable, moderate nation under Musharraf’s leadership — has now become the justification for Washington’s staying on its present course, even as Pakistan has emerged as a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terror. Musharraf himself acknowledged last July after the London subway bombings that “wherever these extremist or terrorist incidents occur in the world, a direct or indirect connection is established with this country.”
On his tour, Bush would do well to probe why India, with a larger Muslim population than Pakistan, is not home to any al-Qaida cell or troubled by incendiary Islam. With India demonstrating the power of democracy as a moderating force, Bush will find good reason why he should translate his liberty rhetoric into policy.
The difference between a deeply rooted democracy and a U.S.-backed dictatorship is reflected in another striking way: While a 2005 poll of the Pew Global Attitudes Project revealed that more people in India have a positive view of America than in any other nation surveyed, Pakistan, in contrast, is “probably the most anti-American country in the world right now,” according to a Congressional Research Service report. The fervent anti-Americanism has much to do with U.S. life-support to a succession of Pakistani military rulers since the 1950s.
Musharraf oils his dictatorship with U.S. aid, like the previous Pakistani despot, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who infused the jihad culture during his 11-year rule. Still, Musharraf extends only selective antiterror cooperation, helping in the capture of some of al-Qaida’s Arab figures but shielding the Taliban and homegrown terrorist groups. He has yet to clean up the Islamic madrassas (schools) that serve as a principal recruiting ground for global terrorists.
Pakistan has been America’s ally only under military rule, with its brief periods of democratic governance coinciding with a cooling of its relations with Washington. This fact, coupled with Musharraf’s playing to U.S. fears about an Islamist takeover in Islamabad, has reinforced America’s perception that it needs the Pakistan military.
Religious fundamentalism and militarism, however, openly feed on each other in Pakistan. This unholy relationship is the main impediment to the introduction of genuine liberal democracy.
In fact, the terrorism scourge in Pakistan emanates not so much from the rosary-holding mullahs as from the Scotch whisky-drinking generals. The Pakistan military reared the forces of jihad, founded the Taliban, and still maintains ties with terrorist groups through its infamous Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Yet by passing the blame for the disastrous jihadist military policies to the mullahs they control, Musharraf and his fellow generals have made many outsiders believe that the key is to contain the religious fringe, not the military. Even in the egregious Pakistani transfers of nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, the military feigned ignorance and shifted the blame to a handful of scientists led by A.Q. Khan, with America going along with the charade.
It is past time that U.S. policy focused on longer-term goals in Pakistan and helped create democratic institutions to reform the state.
Without consistency, credibility and commitment, no international mission can succeed in today’s world, even if it is spearheaded by the sole superpower. Bush cannot plausibly promote freedom by seeking an additional $85 million in emergency funding from Congress to instigate internal opposition to Iran’s clerical regime and then set out to hug his favorite autocrat in next-door Pakistan.
If Bush really cares about Pakistan’s future as a viable, modern nation-state, he should work to break its military’s viselike grip on power. For a start, that means persuading Musharraf to give up his military office and hold free and fair elections.