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Musharraf must be told some harsh home truths

Musharraf must be told some harsh home truths

Author: Bronwen Maddox
Publication: The Times
Date: February 28, 2006
URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2061267,00.html

President Bush will arrive in Pakistan at the end of the week after a couple of days in India, no doubt exhilarating, and full of colour and chatter about the future of technology.

Landing in Pakistan, he should acknowledge that he is in a much darker place, never mind Pakistan's status as a favorite ally. He should not duck the task of telling President Musharraf that democratic reform is needed urgently.

Nor should he delude himself that the US can keep on backing Musharraf uncritically, hoping that the status quo will hold. It will not; Musharraf's tactics, in the face of a surging new threat to his authority, are making the crisis worse.

The Danish cartoons have exposed the threats that have been converging for the past year. Yesterday in Lahore and Multan, two cities where protests have been banned, hundreds rallied to demonstrate against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons.

For the first time since Musharraf seized power in a military coup in October 1999, there are frequent protests across the country. They are stridently anti-Western, hostile to him, and much larger than in the past. Of course, Musharraf has ridden out the storm before. In September 2001, as the wreckage of the World Trade Centre was still smouldering, Bush gave him just hours to decide whether to back the US in overthrowing the Taleban in Afghanistan. He did, and overturned years of policy, snubbing an intelligence service still passionately dedicated to the Taleban cause. There were riots, but they were surprisingly low-key, even in Karachi, a city where it takes nothing to summon thousands out of thin air.

Two years ago, when Pakistan and India began to relax their bristling standoff along Kashmir's Line of Control, the change was anathema to the army. But it stayed obedient to him as Commander-in-Chief.

This time, it is different. Several threats have come together. The worst is Baluchistan. On its own, this could bring Musharraf down.

Tribal militants in Pakistan's south-western province are mounting a drive for more autonomy. They want one thing above all: a bigger slice of revenues from the Baluchi gas fields. Yesterday militants in Baluchistan attacked a train on its way to Lahore.

The Baluchis have won some sympathetic support from Sind province, which also sees revenues from its resources flowing to the capital (although it keeps a higher share).

The protests have become more bitter as oil and gas prices have risen, and as land along Baluchistan's spectacular coastline is sold off to outsiders.

These are secular protests against Musharraf's authority. They have a strong tribal character, but little religious component. But the religious political parties have taken advantage of the ugly mood to rally their own support.

In the past few years, Musharraf has found the religious parties useful as a bulwark against the big political parties he has wanted to weaken, for fear they would challenge him. But the religious parties owe him little, and are now turning on him.

Meanwhile, the main political parties are stepping up the attack. The Pakistan Muslim League, whose figurehead is Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister, and the Pakistan People's Party, headed by Benazir Bhutto, have called for an independent commission to oversee parliamentary elections next year.

Above all, the Baluchi conflict has overstretched the army. Its battle against alQaeda in Waziristan is faring worse by the year.

The message from Bush to Musharraf should be this:

* Pay the Baluchis much more for their gas. Stop using military tactics to crush them, and offer more autonomy

* Stop courting mullahs

* Allow free elections next year and help the political parties to squeeze out the mullahs

The US position has been that Musharraf is better than anything else. It has given him breathtaking licence, overlooking Pakistan's responsibility for nuclear proliferation to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

But this view is wrong. It sounds worldly, but it is naive. Musharraf's taste for the military solution, not the political one, is bringing closer exactly the turmoil that the US fears.

The US's promotion of democracy in the Arab world may have reached a hiatus. But it should divert a fraction of that effort to democracy in Pakistan, where the need is clear.

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