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Who lost Pakistan? Maybe the West

Protest in Islamabad
Faisal Mahmood / Reuters
A civil rights activist shouts slogans against emergency rule during a protest in Islamabad this week. President Pervez Musharraf's move to suspend Pakistan's constitution is prompting questions about U.S. policy toward that nation.

Since President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan's constitution last weekend, much of the reporting in the U.S. press has focused on potential changes in American aid policy and possible negative effects on the war on terror. An unspoken assumption seems to be that instability over religious extremism contributed (or led) to Musharraf's actions, and that the struggle against Al-Qaida and the Taliban would be weakened if he falters.

Many political analysts and Pakistani writers, however, are not only seeing wholly different reasons for the emergency-law dictum, but perceive very different dynamics regarding religious extremism; some have concluded that U.S. support for Musharraf has exacerbated it -- and that the emergency declaration itself will cause further Taliban gains.

Kaiser Bengali, in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, argued that the United States and the West actually helped create conditions for the rise of fundamentalist extremism long before Musharraf: "After supporting military regimes for almost a quarter of a century in order to achieve short-term goals and, by consequence, allowing civil institutions to decay, the West appears to have woken up to the dire state of affairs and the implications for regional and global security. There seems to be some realization that the absence of democratic space has enabled religious extremist forces to mobilize and gain ascendancy."

Ahmed Rashid, in the Washington Post, wrote that "the spread of anti-Western feelings and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism have been fostered by a U.S. policy that has sought to prop up Musharraf rather than forcing him to seek political consensus and empower a representative civilian government that would have public support for attacking the extremists." Moreover, he thinks the declaration of emergency rule "will only encourage further civil strife, nationwide protests and greater territorial gains by the extremist Pakistani Taliban."

Rashid also concluded that "Musharraf's chief aim had little to do with terrorism." It was "to 'cleanse' the Supreme Court. ... The court, which had become a major irritant for the regime, had been due to rule on whether Musharraf could remain president for another five-year term." This view is also articulated by analyst Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations. Musharraf's illegitimacy was stressed by I.A. Rehman, whose initial reaction in Pakistan's Dawn newspaper was picked up by the Guardian of London and who was arrested on Sunday. "Emergency is a euphemism for a complete break with the constitution," he wrote. "To say that the regime's crisis of legitimacy has been aggravated is an understatement. Pakistan may well have been pushed into a blind alley and its capacity to come out unscathed is seriously in doubt."

The importance of a return to legitimacy seems to have impressed two leaders whose initial reactions were widely seen as understated. First, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto called for a rally Friday in Rawalpindi and threatened to lead "a long march" from Lahore to Islamabad Nov. 13 if Musharraf doesn't restore constitutional rule and quit the army. Then President Bush stepped up his rhetoric, saying Wednesday that he told Musharraf he should take off his uniform and "have elections soon."

Of the United States and its role on Pakistan, Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution wrote, " ... above all it needs to ask how its short term goals (the destruction of the Al-Qaida element residing in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) can be reconciled with the long term goal -- now perhaps out of reach -- of a stable, if not wholly democratic, Pakistan."

Susan Albright, former editorial page editor of the Star Tribune, writes on national issues and foreign affairs.

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