Pakistan’s role in establishing a lasting peace in Afghanistan – in fact, in all of South Asia – is well established. But the continued fight against terrorists in the region, especially those who are hiding in Pakistan’s remote tribal regions, is wearing thin on the patience of some American officials and a war-weary public.
Former Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, cautions us to be patient, though, and not to put short-term gains ahead of long-term progress.
For the urgency of our short-term military and political needs can easily make us act in ways that seem disdainful of a proud people, and dismissive of the often messy workings of a struggling democracy that faces tremendous domestic pressures of its own. Such an approach would be more likely to undermine our long-term interests than to buttress them. As much as it goes against the national grain, we must find it within ourselves to be patient and supportive, albeit cautiously so, in a situation that seems to demand immediate and uncompromising action to protect U.S. interests.
The question is not solely whether we favor the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, or think that our nation would be safer if the military or the political opposition were in power. Rather, we must ask ourselves whether Pakistan’s internal political dynamic appears to be heading in the direction of stability or anarchy. We cannot let the frustration and disappointment of transitory and contradictory events, such as the recent temporary closure of a NATO supply route that runs through Pakistan, blind us to the essential and vital underlying reality.
The good news is, there is significant reason to believe that progress is being made, and that Pakistan’s democratic government is laying the foundation for permanent change in the region.
Here are two important indicators. Recently, President Zardari and other representatives of the civilian government met with Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the leader of Pakistan’s army. Although widely depicted in the Pakistani media as a heated confrontation, the session concluded with a joint statement by both groups stating that they had agreed “to protect the democratic process and to resolve all issues in accordance with the constitution.” And, only a few days later, Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down as military dictator of the country in 2008, announced he had established a new political party to seek a return to power.
While these events are far from definitive, they provide a rational basis for believing that the immense pressures buffeting Pakistan and its people may not result in yet another political upheaval. Although change of some form will inevitably occur in the years to come, there is good reason to hope that it will take place in ways that are consistent with the nation’s constitution, and conducive to the emergence of a more stable country. In such a situation, it would be ironic indeed if we failed to support Pakistan’s fledgling democracy while striving so hard to establish the rule of law in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Past strategies that emphasized short-term gains resulted in unintended consequences that make today’s battles more difficult. The US should not make the same mistake this time, and should concentrate efforts on supporting and maintaining a transparent and legitimate democracy in Pakistan. Doing so will enable us to repair relations with officials and the public who continue to suspect American motives based on past mistakes, while also giving pro-democracy reforms the breathing room to continue to build on recent progress.
Terrorism is a virus. It spreads quickly where it is unobstructed by democracy, which weakens the ability of terrorists to recruit and carry out acts of violence. Though it may be tempting to try to destroy terrorism with sheer force, such a strategy actually leaves the region susceptible to its continued spread. Only by supporting and reinforcing the trend towards democratic reform will the world be able to rid itself of the terrorist virus for good.