Something old or something new?

Something old or something new?

What is in store for Pakistan's future after its recent parliamentary election and the U.S. presidential election in seven months, asks Tom Plate

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Los Angeles --- The central nervous system of the Bush administration's "war on terror" may now be frayed beyond recognition or repair.

Tired American soldiers are bogged down in Iraq, whose indigenous politicians cannot get their act together and where the real Al-Qaida terrorists are fewest in number. In Afghanistan, where are there more of the bad guys, the NATO alliance is undermanned and demoralized; European governments are shakier than ever in their resolve to do what it takes.

And in Pakistan, where there may be the greatest number of Al-Qaida anywhere, including The Man himself -- Bin Laden -- the Bush administration's chief ally has just been embarrassingly told to take a hike by his people.

The recent Pakistan election must be the most astounding low-turnout landslide in recent memory.

Many people were too frightened to vote, fearing retaliation from the government of Pervez Musharraf, the military careerist who tried to repackage himself as the savior of rectitude and integrity. But those who did courageously overcome their fears voted overwhelmingly for almost anyone but the dictator.

There are two immediate implications.

One is that the general-dictator must stand down immediately -- or allow his position to be watered down dramatically to lame-duck status.

As I wrote in this column last September, "Musharraf must leave not because he is an authoritarian, but because he has lost the confidence of the Pakistanis." Now, with the weekend election, that loss-of-confidence becomes totally official.

The second implication is that the Bush administration -- as the clock clicks down to January 2009 -- must do nothing in Pakistan of any consequence. It also needs to do something which it is generally not good at: Be quiet, because everything it has done or said has generally been misconceived and miserable. It put all its eggs in the bountiful basket of the handsome general, and now the eggs have gone rotten.

Pakistan has all but blown up in everyone's face -- and it may still even do that. A lot of terrible things could happen, in addition to the unmentionable: terrorist groups getting their paws on the country's nuclear weapons stash.

But by this time next year, a new American administration will be in power. Good riddance to the current one. It is hard to imagine that the next one could prove -- whether Democratic or Republican -- as incompetent in Pakistan as the current.

It seems as if every step the Bush administration took was off-balance, off-key -- just plain off. But the whole mess is to be inherited (presumably -- seven months is a long time in American politics -- who knows what might happen?) by President John McCain or President Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama. One of them will need to start thinking about its Asian and terror-war options as soon as early November. American foreign policy is in crisis there.

In Pakistan, the two main opposition groups say they are prepared to lay down their hatchets and work together in harmony to hammer out a broad coalition government in Parliament. If this can be pulled off, they are to be congratulated. Their country needs national-interest unity above all right now.

They, for the moment, are not the enemy, Musharraf is. They must become the solution to Pakistan's problem, not remain party to the customary petty squabbling and the not-so-petty corruption of the past.

The late Benazir Bhutto may not have been the second coming of Mother Teresa in the sainthood department. But when an assassin finished her off in December, that vile act blew a symbolic hole in the center of a unified Pakistan. Were she alive today, she would in a Karachi minute become the new government of Pakistan in the post-Musharraf era, and bring to the task an unparalleled sense of history about her own destiny and her country's.

But she is dead -- yet suddenly a new kind of Pakistani democracy may have come alive. Let us all hope it will prove real enough for this country to escape the darkness and start developing -- politically as well as economically -- like a normal nation.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.