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Graham Allison

Reading the tea leaves in Pakistan

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Graham Allison
February 21, 2008

PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF'S stunning defeat in Monday's elections in Pakistan represents a decisive rejection of what his opponents called his policies of "subservience" to the United States. An American press that has been virtually unanimous in opposing Musharraf will now predictably call for his resignation in favor of "genuine democracy." Since this outcome is a possibility, it is essential to ask where a government that accurately reflects the views of Pakistani citizens would stand on issues that matter most to America.

Would such a government follow Musharraf's lead as a grudging shot-gun ally? Recall that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as Musharraf tells the story, the United States gave him the choice of becoming an ally or being "bombed back to the Stone Age."

How vigorously would a new democratic government support the US-led war on terrorism in which Pakistan's army is now fighting Al Qaeda and its affiliates headquartered in Pakistan's ungoverned Northwest Territories? Would such a government be more likely to cooperate with the United States and NATO in the ongoing but faltering war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Recall again that the rise of the Taliban took place during the term of Musharraf's civilian predecessors, including Nawaz Sharif, the leader of one of the parties that won in Monday's election.

The answer to each of these questions is as unambiguous as it is uncomfortable. A Pakistani government whose actions align with its citizens' views on these issues would be at loggerheads with the United States. Over the past year, polls have highlighted the sharp decline in Musharraf's popularity, with his approval ratings dropping to 15 percent in December. Several recent polls, including ones from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the International Republican Institute, and Terror Free Tomorrow echo those sentiments, with one showing that 70 percent of Pakistanis "want Musharraf to immediately resign."

But what most American commentators have missed is that however much Pakistanis dislike Musharraf, they are more hostile toward the United States. When asked to name the "single greatest threat" to their country, 64 percent of Pakistanis named the United States. Historic archrival India, with whom Pakistan has fought five bloody wars, was second, well behind America.

Eighty-nine percent of Pakistanis said they disapprove of the US war on terrorism. Eight in 10 Pakistanis oppose allowing the United States to pursue Al Qaeda terrorists in their country. A similar percentage rejects US pursuit of Taliban forces into Pakistan. In opposing Musharraf, opposition parties called him "Busharraf" and accused him of being a "lackey" of the United States in the "so-called war on terrorism," which they say is a US-led war on Islam.

The US military presence in Afghanistan, where earlier Pakistani governments were the primary sponsors of the Taliban, is opposed by 83 percent of Pakistanis. Critics of Musharraf's limited cooperation with the US-NATO campaign should recognize that a government that more closely followed the wishes of its people would be less cooperative in combating the Taliban.

The United States has two vital national interests in Pakistan: first, to prevent any of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and bomb-making materials from being stolen, sold or transferred to terrorists; second, to destroy Al Qaeda's leadership, sanctuary, and training camps. Neither interest will be advanced by a transition from the devil we know to the new democratic Pakistani government.

Fortunately, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secured by its army, the country's most effective national institution. Unless the army were destabilized or became substantially disaffected because of extended political instability, it will fulfill its custodial responsibilities. In contrast, a government that truly reflects the current views of the Pakistani people is more likely to be an unspoken opponent than an ambiguous ally in the US war against Al Qaeda and other terrorists in the region.Hard as it is to believe, Osama bin Laden is four times as popular among Pakistanis as President Bush, whose approval rating is 7.7 percent.

That leading US opinion pages generally critical of Bush's democracy crusade in Iraq should now so uncritically promote democratic shock-therapy as a panacea for Pakistan's problems is puzzling. The inconvenient, painful truth is that a truly democratic Pakistan would be, at least in the foreseeable future, less inclined to act in ways that advance urgent American interests.

Advocates of instant democracy should be careful what they wish for.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and author of "Essence of Decision" and "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe."

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