Musharraf: The Devil We Know

October 4, 2007

First published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Bill Clinton called South Asia the World’s most dangerous region following the tit-for-tat nuclear testing by India and Pakistan in 1998. That seems ages ago. For the past few years our attention has been diverted to Iraq, and now we fear Iran developing nuclear weapons.

But the world’s most dangerous region does not turn benign on a dime. Angry Muslim youth from all o0ver the world still travel to Pakistan for training in al-Qaida’s jihadi camps, and Pakistan has an arsenal of nuclear bombs. Pakistan is also a veritable pressure cooker whose many political parties and fundamentalist Muslim organizations are chafing at the bit for power.

Therefore, on Oct. 6, when Pakistan holds presidential elections, much is at stake – for the region and the world.

Pervez Musharraf, the wily general and leader of the country, says he will doff his uniform if he is elected president, and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have ironed out as many wrinkles as possible in the Pakistani political landscape to enable his continuation.

But Musharraf faces two opponents – a former supreme court judge, Wajihuddin Ahmed, 68, who is backed by the lawyers campaigning against military rule, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the vice chairman of the Pakistan people’s Party, which is led by the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Ahmed was one of six supreme court judges who resigned in January 2000 rather than take an oath of allegiance to Musharraf, who had seized power in a coup just three months before.

Neither will make a serious challenge, but the Pakistani street is simmering. Riots have occurred recently, and more than 230 opposition lawmakers have resigned from Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies to resist Musharraf’s re-election bid. Additionally, journalists observed a “Black Day” on Sept. 30 condemning the police action during protests against the general.

For the West, however, Musharraf is the man to keep the wobbly Pakistan electorate in control, the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in safe-keeping, and the jihadi training camps fed just enough to produce a small number of “Muslim militants” to keep the Kashmir pot in a tepid state.

He will face a host of challenges, ranging from internal political disharmony and conflict to the escalating threat by Islamic extremists and socio-economic inequities. But his trading of a general’s rank for an elected president’s necktie symbolizes the country’s important and continued move toward secularism.

A more secular Pakistan assures us that the “Islamic bombs” will not fall into fundamentalist Islamist hands. Also, a stable, democratic, Sunni-majority Pakistan will be a bulwark against the Shia-majority Iran whose leadership is keen on upsetting the various Middle Eastern non-democratic Sunni apple carts in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere.

Additionally, Pakistan has provided its bases and its air space for American spying on the Russians in the past, and because of its geographical location, it will continue to be an American outpost for keeping tabs on a variety of players in the region now: Afghanistan, China, Russia, India, Iran, and the various restive Central Asian republics.

A more secular Pakistan should result in a more robust Pakistani economy, increasing business opportunities for American security, military, and technology industries and enterprises. It also could lead to the closing down of jihadi training camps in Pakistan’s remote provinces and to lessening the probability of terrorist cells in our own region getting the green light to target us.

Musharraf is the devil we know. At present, there seems to be no other serious and good alternative to making the South Asia region safer.

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