March 20, 2008

March 20, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

Pakistan Election Rewards

Extremists may insist that Muslims have no choice but to engage in violent struggle with the West. Last week's election in Pakistan, however, proves otherwise.

Indeed, the outcome is an important step in countering extremist ideologies that fuel global terrorism and is therefore good news both for the region and for the United States. U.S. officials reacted with guarded praise, but they should welcome the victory of democratic candidates more broadly and avoid clinging to President Pervez Musharraf, who for too long has promoted himself as Pakistan's only savior at the expense of the democratic process.

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which ran on a platform of countering extremism and bringing stability and modernity to the country, won the most seats, with another mainstream democratic party, the Pakistan Muslim League/Nawaz, coming in a close second. Few likely comprehend the consequences of extremism in Pakistan more than Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairman of the PPP and widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by terrorists last December.

The determination of Pakistanis to participate in the election despite efforts by al Qaeda and Taliban-backed elements to disrupt it through violence was itself a victory against extremism. Terrorists have engaged in a suicide bombing campaign in Pakistan over the last eight months to avenge last July's military operation at the Red Mosque and to exploit political uncertainty sparked by Mr. Musharraf's confrontation with the judiciary. Demonstrating al Qaeda's designs on Pakistan, Ayman al-Zawahri last summer incited Pakistanis to jihad over the Red Mosque showdown and proclaimed that "elections will not save you."

Al-Zawahri has now been repudiated. The election helps end the serious political instability al Qaeda thrives on and puts the country firmly on a path toward democratic rule.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the election was the victory of a secular Pashtun party in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) over religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban. Although Mr. Musharraf helped the U.S. in its fight against terrorism in many ways, he also gave in to the religious parties, backtracking on promises to rein in local extremists and to close Islamic schools preaching hatred against the West. The vote in the NWFP clearly repudiated efforts by extremists to push a strict Islamic agenda by closing girls' schools, burning video stores, and threatening barbers - the same tactics the Taliban used to cow the Afghans in the mid-1990s.

Now that the centrist parties have proven they are more popular than the religious parties, they should use their mandate to deal firmly with terrorists, who will never accept the idea of a modern, economically developed Pakistan engaged with the West. Mr. Zardari's recent comment that his party would seek negotiations with militants is troubling. A realistic evaluation of the situation in the Tribal Areas points to the need for continued targeted military operations that decapitate the terrorist leadership and disrupt terrorist plans and operations - not tactical negotiations that allow hardcore extremists to stay and thrive. Mr. Musharraf already tried negotiating cease-fires with some of the militant groups, which only strengthened al Qaeda-Taliban influence in the region.

A better strategy is to root out religious militancy from the areas altogether. This will require physically neutralizing terrorist leaders and ideologues, as well as focusing more attention on political and economic development of the region. It will also require closing religious schools that preach hatred of the West and opening ones that provide more broad-based education.

The U.S. Congress can spur the process of developing the tribal lands by moving forward with legislation to create Reconstruction Opportunity Zones that would provide incentives for investment in the NWFP by permitting products produced there to enter the U.S. duty-free.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of this election in shaping Pakistan's future and how the country deals with religious extremism. Pakistan's ability to overcome this challenge will largely determine the ultimate outcome of the struggle against al Qaeda-inspired global terrorism.

The U.S. image in Pakistan has been tarnished by its unwillingness to criticize Mr. Musharraf for undermining civil society and the democratic process over the past year. The U.S. must take the opportunity to regain the confidence of the Pakistani people by welcoming these developments and shifting the weight of its support to the newly-elected civilian government - which represents the best hope for the country's future.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Washington Times