Panic in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Police and soldiers emboldened by state of emergency powers swept up hundreds of activists and opposition members on Sunday, dragged away protesters shouting "Shame on you!", and turned government buildings into barbed-wire compounds. [full coverage at Yahoo!]

It is difficult to overstate how much the U.S. strategy in the Middle East depends on Pakistan. That's why this is a very serious situation any way you look at it. It will be difficult for the Bush Administration to continue arguing that its goals are freedom and democracy for all if it allows Musharraf to become even more blatantly dictatorial than he already was. Reports indicate that the government has shut down all independent media, arrested the Supreme Court's chief justice, and suspended the Constitution. These aren't minor steps.

Neocons and other war hawks will argue that this is just the price we have to pay to win the War on Terror. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. The people of Pakistan just have to grin and bear it until we get around to liberating them, too. Therefore, the U.S. must do whatever it takes to prop up the Musharraf regime and prevent Muslim extremists from taking over Pakistan. He's an SOB but at least he's our SOB. Steven Taylor isn't buying it.

The real irony here is not that there aren’t real problems associated with Muslim extremism in Pakistan, there most assuredly are. Indeed, it was elements of the Pakistani intelligence apparatus that helped the Taliban establish itself in Afghanistan. And yes, there are clearly jihadist elements in Pakistan. However, the notion that a strong dictatorship will make this situation better is problematic.

At a minimum, if authoritarian rule was the elixir that cured the world of jihadism, it would have been wiped out some time ago. Or have we not noticed that this type of extremist thinking and actions was conceived, gestated and born in the context of mostly secular authoritarianism in the Middle East and Central Asia? A “strong hand” is not some automatic fix. Indeed, such strong hands often inspire further radicalism. No doubt, for example, these “preventive arrests” will inspire the opposition to greater ties and sympathies with extremists, not diminish them. In simple terms, if the opposition wishes to continue its fight, and Musharraf is shutting down existing political mechanisms to do so, what choice will they have but to deepen their connections to radicalized elements in Pakistani politics?

It may be that the immediate crisis will subside, but the best case is that the U.S. now faces a very uncertain long-term problem in Pakistan. Keep in mind that, unlike Iran, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. Now imagine a radical Islamist regime taking power there. All of a sudden Iraq and Iran will be the least of our worries.

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