As a matter of hardheaded realism, not just pro-democratic ideology, President Bush should pressure Pakistan's military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, to hold free elections this year. That's because, perhaps sooner than later, the increasingly unpopular Musharraf could go the way of the Shah of Iran, who was toppled by Islamic extremists. And also, Musharraf's leading Democratic opponent, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, says she would do a better job than Musharraf in fighting the resurgent Taliban that's menacing Afghanistan.
"As prime minister," Bhutto told me in an interview, "I'd control the tribal areas of Pakistan," where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding and the Taliban is ascendant. "I did it before, when the drug lords were in control and I'm confident I can clear out the Taliban." Opposed to the hostile relationship that Musharraf maintains with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bhutto adds that, "a democratic Pakistan would help Afghanistan stabilize, relieving pressure on NATO troops."
Bush late last month dispatched Vice President Cheney to Pakistan to read the riot act to Musharraf about rising Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan, reportedly warning that Democrats in Congress might cut off aid to his regime if he was not more aggressive. In fact, House Democrats, as part of their first "100 days" homeland security bill, conditioned future military aid to Pakistan on Bush's certifying that Musharraf was making "all possible efforts" to oust the Taliban from his country, but the provision was pulled from the Senate bill at the administration's request.
Thwarting a new Taliban offensive is uppermost on the U.S. priority list, followed by concern that nuclear-armed Pakistan not be taken over by Islamic fundamentalists. Democratic development in Pakistan is somewhere on the list, but it's not at the top. It needs to be, because democracy is intimately connected to controlling extremism. Americans -- including Bush -- have the idea that Musharraf, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, is all that stands between stability and Islamic fundamentalist rule. That view is stoutly disputed by Bhutto and Pakistan experts such as Boston University's Husain Haqqani, both of whom pointed out to me that in Pakistan's 2002 elections, Islamic parties received just 11.3 percent of the vote. According to Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat and government official, the United States has contributed to a "Middle Easternization" of Pakistan, actually strengthening Islamic forces while bolstering military rulers who prevent democratic political development.
"The Islamists are slowly expanding for one simple reason: You can shut down everything else, but you can't shut down the mosques. If you shut down secular parties, as Musharraf is doing, the only other choice the people have is the Islamists." Bhutto noted that Pakistan's former military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, who in 1977 overthrew and executed her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, formed an alliance with radical Islamists in Pakistan and, with U.S. help, aided Afghan rebels who became the Taliban.
Musharraf, who came to power in a coup in 1999, continued recognizing the Taliban until the U.S. demanded his support after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but Bhutto said he has continued fostering fundamentalism -- partly by starving public education and allowing fundamentalist madrassas to flourish instead. Bhutto told me that she hopes the Bush administration will follow up on Bush's own call last year for "open and honest elections" by pressuring Musharraf to allow her and her former democratic rival, Nawaz Sharif, back into the country to campaign, and by funding "robust" election observer teams to watch the voting, scheduled for November.
Haqqani told me he thinks that the administration fears that if Bhutto were elected prime minister, the Pakistani army would refuse to allow her to govern. But that opposition might be overcome if Bhutto agreed to let Musharraf stay on as president. She told me it is "premature" to discuss Musharraf's future. It's obviously a bargaining chip. Musharraf is resisting free elections and is planning to rely on the parliament elected in 2002 -- in what widely was regarded as rigged voting -- to elect him president. When Pakistan's chief justice threatened to block that move and insisted that the country's constitution be respected -- which also requires Musharraf to quit the army -- he had the justice arrested, which led to demonstrations by lawyers and a subsequent crackdown on news organizations reporting on the protests. His popularity is plunging, though there is no threat -- yet -- of the massive popular unrest of the kind that led to the Shah's ouster in 1979.
This is a moment for Bush to intervene -- along with Congress -- to forestall that possibility by fostering real democracy. Four Senators, including Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., wrote Musharraf a polite letter on March 12 urging him to let Bhutto and Sharif campaign and also to step up efforts to control the Taliban. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, now ambassador to Iraq, told Pakistanis that the U.S. would not pressure Musharraf on elections. It's probably good diplomacy not to apply the pressure publicly, but Bush should have a friendly phone call soon with his strategic ally and warn him that stifling democracy only helps foster terrorism.