Conventional wisdom holds that last month's parliamentary elections in Pakistan have weakened President Pervez Musharraf and the United States' relationship with a key ally.
It's certainly true the elections present great challenges. Pakistan and the region have been, and remain, volatile. The leaders of the two top-voting parties campaigned against U.S. interests. They don't believe fighting terrorism is a priority for the Pakistani government.
Pakistan has never been an easy ally, even when Musharraf was the center of political power. February's parliamentary elections underline that fact and add to the challenges.
Meeting with Musharraf
I met with Musharraf in Islamabad two weeks ago, the day after the election. He was surprisingly upbeat. "A change in course of events is natural and I believe in that," Musharraf told me, adding that "the general elections have strengthened moderate forces in the country."
Perhaps, but moderation in the face of terrorism is not necessarily a virtue.
The United States has two specific areas of concern that rise from the election results. One is the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power in a strategic and dangerous part of the world. Pakistan's political stability is paramount to the security of the region and U.S. interests. The second is the frontier and tribal areas along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, where the remnants of the Taliban and the al-Qaida leadership have found safe haven. The war on terrorism cannot be won until that region is no longer safe for terrorists.
On the nuclear issue, the new parliament would do well to keep Gen. Ashfaq Kiani as the army chief of staff. Kiani took over in November when Musharraf relinquished that role. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Staff and General College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is believed to have no political aspirations, and is a professional soldier. His goal is to professionalize Pakistan's armed forces. If parliament can look beyond the fact that Kiani was appointed to his post by Musharraf, it will recognize his talents and keep him in power.
Because no Pakistani political party won an outright majority in last month's elections, the two parties with the largest wins, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People's Party, headed by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, have formed a government that will choose the next prime minister. The prime minister will wield much power, but it will be tempered by the need to hold the coalition together.
But even if the prime minister were to enjoy strong support, Pakistan's government would remain fragile because the ruling parties don't recognize the danger posed by its tribal and frontier area. Musharraf, in contrast, knows the danger. He raised the issue four times during our meeting. Destabilization in the tribal areas is a cancer spreading radicalism to other parts of the country. The Taliban, he said, have taken control of the frontier and "Talibanization is spreading to the settled areas."
The new parliament needs to recognize that danger is real and threatens Pakistan's independence. Indeed, the murders of more than 100 Pakistanis by suicide bombers in the past few days should be a wake-up call. Instead of ignoring Pakistan's radical elements, the parliament needs to build on the strides Musharraf made. When Musharraf came to power, 44 parliamentary seats were retained by radical religious elements. Before last month's elections, that number had fallen to six.
If the cancer in the tribal areas is not checked, radical religious elements could once again take hold.
Generally, a strong ally
It is doubtful the new parliament will have the votes to remove Musharraf, and that could help lend a measure of stability. For all his faults, it's important to remember Musharraf generally has been a strong ally in the war on terror, has overseen strong economic growth in Pakistan over the past six years, and is an outspoken advocate of women's rights in a country where that position is not always popular.
But political power now lies with the parliament, and it's the parliament the U.S. must win over. Once the new prime minister is selected and sworn in, the United States must use every diplomatic tool available to make it clear we wish to continue to be Pakistan's strategic partner in the region. An open and continuing dialogue with the new government must be maintained with offers of assistance and bilateral agreements that benefit both governments. The United States can continue to be a strong ally in Pakistan's economic and strategic growth, a partnership that is clearly in both countries' interest.
The United States can help Pakistan advance its stability and economic growth. But, first, parliament must recognize the dangers it faces and the benefits a partnership with the U.S. provides. That is the task ahead for us.