ISLAMABAD — The suicide bomber in Karachi, Pakistan’s southern port city, who killed 11 French citizens in broad daylight, could not have found a more opportune moment to strike against the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The general has spent the past few months trying to convince skeptics of his sincerity in setting the nation on a course leading to stability. Events such as the suicide bombing make it difficult to demonstrate that stability is on the horizon.
Last September’s terrorist attacks in the United States created an important window of opportunity for Musharraf’s government. Pakistan has been rewarded for its support of the U.S. war on terror with a restructuring of its foreign debt and a flow of international credit through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
However, Musharraf’s true test lies in his ability to deliver a stable political and economic order. The general’s decision to carry out a controversial referendum in April may have given him a five-year term, but it has hardly shown he can improve the nation’s outlook. For the Pakistani public, the carnage in Karachi suggests the country is nowhere near as close to progress and recovery as its leaders claim.
The concerns of the Pakistani public will only be alleviated by a marked improvement in domestic security. Toward that end, Musharraf must make improvements in three areas.
First, the Pakistani military, which has ruled the country for almost half of its 50-year existence, must have a clearly defined role in the fight against crime. Although many Pakistanis view the military as the nation’s final guarantor of security and peace, the task of fighting crime has been largely left to Pakistan’s dilapidated police and bureaucracy. Faced with fundamentalist terrorism, Pakistan can no longer afford to leave the military out of the war on crime.
The need for the Pakistani military to carve out a role for itself in fighting crime and terrorism presents it with an opportunity to avoid budget cuts. In recent years, Pakistan’s donors and lenders have argued in favor of curtailing the defense budget which, at almost a quarter of annual spending, remains one of the state’s largest expenditures. A large portion of that spending could be justified in the name of fighting crime.
Second, the fight against crime and terrorism needs the support of a national political consensus. Pakistan’s perennial misfortune has been the fact that its political institutions have never been given a chance to strengthen. The existence of weak political institutions limits Islamabad’s ability to create a stable political order that can win the people’s strong support.
As Pakistanis prepare for nationalelections in October, they will be closely watching how much political freedom Musharraf allows. The quality of those freedoms and the extent to which the elections are seen as free and fair will help determine whether the government can gain the backing of a national consensus, which is crucial the success of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.
Finally, Pakistan’s moribund economy and high unemployment offer little hope that the strength of the militants will decline over time. While Musharraf has succeeded in securing billions of dollars in foreign assistance and debt restructuring, his ultimate challenge lies in improving the people’s quality of life. The choices embraced by Musharraf will set the course for the future.
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