Stable Pakistan is key for West

Aid: U.S. leaders should appreciate Gen. Pervez Musharraf's deft domestic balancing act and help him shore up his country's ailing economy.

October 28, 2001|By Rasul Bakhsh Rais | Rasul Bakhsh Rais,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ISLAMABAD -- Mired deep in domestic and regional troubles, Pakistan confronted agonizing and difficult choices between siding with the United States in its war against international terrorism and the Taliban regime next door that it had supported for years.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, did not hesitate in telling President George W. Bush he stood with America. The decision opened up some opportunities for Musharraf and his the country, but it has also invited lots of risks and dangers to the stability of the country and his regime.

The decision to support the international coalition against terrorism was based on rational calculation of costs and benefits. Musharraf and his close associates have argued that the benefits of joining the international coalition against terrorism far outweigh the costs Pakistan might have incurred in staying behind an isolated and pariah regime.

Some of the rewards for offering access to air space, airfields and extending intelligence and logistical support have been as quick as the decision itself.

All three layers of the sanctions against Pakistan for developing a nuclear program, testing the nuclear devices and overthrowing an elected government have been lifted. There are promises of extensive economic assistance to cover the losses its already weak economy is going to suffer because of the war at its doorstep.

There are also strong hints of helping Pakistan to manage its debt burden by writing off some and rescheduling others. Pakistan's pleas for greater access to the American and European Union markets for its goods have found sympathetic ears.

This all represents a striking change in the policies of the United States and other Western countries toward the military regime in Pakistan, which before the catastrophic events of Sept. 11 was isolated and being pressured by different means to restore democracy.

Musharraf's efforts then to cultivate a liberal and benign image for his regime did not succeed much and his promise to restore democracy after implementing an extensive agenda of reforms did not carry much credibility with most foreign governments. The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan's role in it has changed all that.

Acceptance in the international community and support of the most powerful countries in the world is important for any regime, but by itself it is not enough to navigate the stormy political weather Pakistan faces.

One important factor that has worked in Musharraf's favor is that the political opposition to his regime has been weak and fragmented and the mainstream political parties lack credibility in the eyes of the public. The general has been quite successful in presenting himself as a clear-headed, sincere and focused leader.

He comes off as an honest, straightforward and go-getter type of a person. It is ironic that the degree of trust his regime enjoys with the public has been greater than some of the elected governments in the past decade.

Not all sectors of Pakistani society share the view that Pakistan had no other choice. Some of the religious political parties with close ties with the Taliban leaders have been staging demonstrations against the regime, vowing to wage a holy war against the foreign forces launching the airstrikes against the Taliban targets.

So far, these parties have failed to pull out large crowds in the streets and Musharraf's "silent majority" has stayed home. This may change if the anti-terrorist coalition fails to get the message to the Muslim masses that the war against the Taliban regime and its removal are for the right cause. But, for the moment, the religious right of Pakistan has disruptive power in the street but no mass following to pose a real challenge to the military regime.

What might undermine the foundations of the regime is the coming together of the mainstream political parties and the religious right. In the past, such a broad coalition has brought down governments in Pakistan. What the military regime rightly fears is a long, indecisive and imprecise war causing too much collateral damage in Afghanistan, which the political opposition might exploit to foment sentiments against the Musharraf regime.

The dissent within the military, the most powerful institution of the country, might spell troubles for the regime and the country. Historically, this most powerful institution of the country that has ruled for more than 20 years has shown no cracks in its ranks even in the most difficult moments.

Musharraf has been quite deft in balancing off some of the key players in the army. He seems to have a better grip now that he has removed pro-Taliban generals and shifted responsibilities. Stability of the regime would hinge as much on improvement in economic conditions as on the outcome of the war against the Taliban.

Pakistan's weak economy is likely to suffer colossal damage as the Afghan war and international recession begin to hit its export industry and investment climate. Economic deterioration may push Musharraf's "silent majority" to anger and despair, driving them to and swelling the ranks of the opposition.

The West should keep this in mind as it contemplates the speed with which economic assistance is actually delivered and the speed with which the war against bin Laden and the Taliban is concluded.

Prof. Rais teaches international politics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

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