Bhutto: Top democrat returning from exile?
April 11, 2007 -- AS NATO forces prepare to face a massive "spring offensive" by the Taliban in Afghanistan, policymakers may be ignoring a greater threat looming in Pakistan.
My guess is that the Taliban offensive either won't happen or will come as a caricature of what it is billed to be. The Taliban have lost much of the popular base they once had, even among the Ishaqzai Pushtuns of the southeast. Of course, they may be able to continue a low-level insurgency for years, largely thanks to support from Pakistan and the Islamic Republic in Iran.
Tehran indirectly supports the Taliban, through tribal chiefs, as part of the low-intensity war it has been waging against the United States for decades. Islamabad uses its carefully dosed support for the Taliban to exert pressure on President Hamid Karzai's government to allow Pakistan greater space in the politics of new Afghanistan. Yet neither Tehran nor Islamabad would want the Taliban to become strong enough to return to power in Kabul.
But, while Afghanistan is vaccinated against Talibanization, Pakistan is not.
Islamist parties sympathetic to the Taliban already control the regional government in the Northwest Frontier, one of Pakistan's four provinces, and have a foothold in the administration of another, Balochistan. Of greater concern, however, is the heightened profile of Taliban-style groups in Punjab and Sind, two provinces that account for 80 percent of the country's population.
Two factors explain the rise of Taliban-style groups in Pakistan.
The first is President Pervez Musharraf's semi-official alliance with Islamist parties that, though not as radical as the Taliban, have worked hard to increase the role of religion in the nation's politics. By imposing religion as a measure of all things, they have enabled hard-line elements to pose as the sole true custodians of Islam.
The second factor is Musharraf's refusal to allow Pakistan's moderate parties to rebuild themselves under leaders of their choice. These parties were severely restricted, and their top leaders chased out of the country, when Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
The elimination of the mainstream parties led to a paradoxical situation - in which a general who takes the secular Turkish republic as his model found himself allied to Islamists of various shades.
Kemal Ataturk, the father of the Turkish model, created two secular parties - one to form the government, the other to act as loyal opposition and government-in-waiting. Musharraf, who aspires after becoming the father of the Turkish model in Pakistan, did the opposite: He banned the secular parties and let Islamists into the government by the back door.
Musharraf violated the Turkish model in another way. He combined the presidency with his position as commander in chief of the armed forces, something that Ataturk had never done.
Despite these contradictions, Musharraf remains an indispensable figure in Pakistani politics for the near future. He enjoys solid support within the armed forces, and appeals to segments of the urban middle classes.
More important is the fact that he seems to be everyone's second choice, at a time when neither the Islamist groups nor the mainstream parties are in a position to impose their first choices.
Yet the Musharraf presidency is fast approaching a fork in the road. In one direction lies the path to tighter military rule backed by obscurantist religious parties ready to sacrifice political and social freedoms at the altar of a narrow vision of Islam. The other direction points to a genuine democratization that could immunize Pakistan against all forms of Talibanization.
The moment of choice will come later this year, when Pakistan is to hold a general election.
The question is whether Musharraf will allow the mainstream, non-Islamist parties to reorganize freely and enter the election with leaders of their own choice.
In recent weeks, several countries (including the United Sates, Britain and Saudi Arabia) have worked behind the scenes to broker a deal between Musharraf and party leaders in exile.
If my sources are right, an agreement is in the making between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
As leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Bhutto is arguably the strongest democratic figure in her nation's politics. Last week's decision by a court to throw out trumped-up charges of corruption against her could facilitate her return from exile. And that is certain to boost the chances of mainstream forces defeating the Islamists in a straight electoral contest.
Musharraf might find it more difficult to make a deal with Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister whom the general forced into exile. Musharraf accuses Sharif of having tried to remove him from his position as chief of the army and even plotting his murder in 1999. Nevertheless, Musharraf should forgive (if not forget) past grievances, and let Sharif return home to play his part in opposing the threat of religious extremism.
In exchange, Bhutto and Sharif should drop their long-held opposition to Musharraf's plan to seek a further five-year term as president. Despite his mistakes, Musharraf remains the only prominent Pakistani figure capable of forging a consensus. Retaining him as president in a system that gives the prime minister and the parliament more power would be a wise move for Pakistan.
To make that possible, Musharraf should abandon his demand to combine the presidency with the command of the army for five more years. That would enable him to emerge as a genuine standard-bearer of the Turkish model in Pakistan, a model based on two key principles: the separation of mosque and state, and the role of the military as the custodian of the constitution and not as ruling elite.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.