As he painted himself the hero in a news conference on Nov. 11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gave no hint of when emergency rule would be lifted. In fact, he delivered only one piece of real news: Pakistan’s parliamentary elections would be held in January after all, not February as asserted two weeks ago. In the process, Gen. Musharraf confirmed many of the international community’s worst suspicions about the present crisis. He somehow actually managed to deepen the dilemma for American policy-makers, which must wend a precarious path between the strongman’s vanity and the chaos which a regime collapse or Islamist ascendancy would undoubtedly bring.
This month’s crackdown has landed an iron fist not on a U.S. enemy but on the moderates and democrats with whom the United States has no quarrel. Couched in the rhetoric of antiterrorism and antisubversion, Gen. Musharraf has instead assaulted people who are favorably disposed to us. Were Gen. Musharraf truly serious about antiterrorism, he would arrest the many radical Islamist militants who live openly in Peshawar and other major cities. The reality is that he is not serious. He prefers to play both sides in an increasingly precarious balancing act.
Indeed, Gen. Musharraf’s recent actions seem to be all about regime preservation. Veering on the one hand between the United States and its antiterror imperatives, and on the other, radical Islamists in the population and the intelligence ser- vices, Gen. Musharraf’s ultimate concern is his own grip on power.
Right now, it is clear that unless he declares an immediate or near-immediate end to emergency rule, the integrity of January’s elections will be seriously compromised. Gen. Musharraf has simply not been willing to even address the question of how elections could be meaningful in a climate of drastically curtailed free speech and free association. The opposition has raised it, as it should, and with good justification. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said that such elections would be “difficult,” labeling yesterday’s news “a positive step.” She must speak positively if any chance of a compromise government is possible. But at this point, a sham election appears likely.
Put simply, it is clear that fair elections are necessary to ratchet Pakistan’s political tensions down the several notches which Gen. Musharraf has raised them. This may prove to be a case where the United States’ supreme interest in Pakistan — stability, the security of the country’s nuclear weapons and the pursuit of terrorists — coincide more than ever with increased pluralism. More and more does Gen. Musharraf seem to constitute a problem for Pakistan’s stability, and less does he seem to be the ready solution he was deemed to be in 1999 and again after the September 11 terrorist attacks. At times Gen. Musharraf almost seems to be daring the United States to decide whether he is more of a threat to Pakistani security than the alternatives.