March 31, 2008

Sense and Insensitivity in Pakistan

Filed under: NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 6:29 pm


MARCH 28, 2008


Published: March 28, 2008

Since winning parliamentary elections last month, the leaders of Pakistan’s new coalition government have shown good judgment: putting aside destructive personal rivalries and moving quickly to revive their country’s moribund democracy.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they have also made clear that they do not trust the Bush administration, which bet everything on President Pervez Musharraf’s destructive authoritarian rule. And the new leaders are talking about reviewing Pakistan’s role in the Washington-led war on terrorism. That is very worrying.

The Bush administration bullied and bought Mr. Musharraf’s loyalty — and he never stayed bought. It is unlikely that President Bush can now overcome Pakistanis’ visceral mistrust. But with the right mix of aid, attention and humility, the administration can help strengthen the new government. With more aid, and more humility, it can also argue the case for why fighting extremism is in Pakistan’s clear interest.

Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and the leader of one party in the coalition government, bluntly told American officials who visited Islamabad this week that there would be no more “one-man show” in Pakistan. The new government is working hard to marginalize Mr. Musharraf and undo his worst abuses, starting with the release of judges detained last year.

Amid a bloody surge in suicide bombings, officials in Islamabad are also talking about trying to negotiate a deal with local Taliban militants. They don’t seem to have a clear plan yet, but it is hard to see how they would be more successful than Mr. Musharraf. His deal with tribal leaders in the Afghan border region failed spectacularly as troops retreated to barracks and extremists moved east toward Pakistan’s more populated areas. Things also got much worse in Afghanistan.

This is a risky course, and Washington will have to work hard to help the government understand that — without provoking even more resentment and mistrust.

There are other dangers ahead. Although Mr. Musharraf has pledged to work with the new government, Mr. Sharif is demanding the president’s resignation, and some fear that if pushed, the former general might try another coup. The new government is also going to have to work out a relationship with the United States. Washington has given Islamabad more than $10 billion since 9/11, and the new government will need continued help.

President Bush can show his commitment to democracy and stability by increasing nonmilitary aid for projects that would strengthen the country’s battered democratic institutions and improve Pakistanis’ lives.

The administration proved, once again, how little it understands the basics of diplomacy. On the day the new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, was sworn in, the two visiting American diplomats chose to meet with Mr. Musharraf. That timing left the impression that Washington is still not listening to Pakistanis.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It is next door to Afghanistan. Does Washington need any more reasons to worry about what happens there? Or any more proof that it cannot afford to keep making such mistakes?


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