General Musharraf has declared a state of emergency, promulgated a Provisional Constitutional Order and fired a number of judges, including the justices of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Troops have taken over television and radio stations, and some opposition leaders have been placed under house arrest.
Musharraf went on television to explain his actions:
“I consider that inaction at the moment is suicidal for Pakistan and I cannot allow the country to commit suicide,” he said.
Musharraf did not mention if elections would be held by Jan. 15 next year on schedule and as demanded by Washington. He said, however, he is committed to take the country through the “transition to democracy.”
He urged the Western countries particularly the United States to understand the reasons for which he was compelled to take the extraordinary measures.
“Kindly understand the criticality of environment inside and around Pakistan. Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization,” he said.
“Please bear with us, please give us time,” he said and asked his critics not to expect the same level of democracy that they had achieved over a period of many centuries.
The United States and Great Britain have both condemned Musharraf’s actions. The situation is very bad: either Musharraf is correct in assessing the danger posed by Islamic extremists, in which case Pakistan is in worse straits than I had realized, or he is using the extremists as a pretext to prolong his own quasi-dictatorial rule. Both alternatives are grim; the truth is perhaps a combination of the two.
It is impossible to say, at this point, how events will play out, but my instinct is to be sympathetic to Musharraf. It is important to distinguish between permanent and provisional enemies of democracy. The struggle against Islamic extremism is analogous in some ways to the cold war. In a number of countries in Latin America and elsewhere in the third world, authoritarian governments limited their citizens’ rights to varying degrees and carried out more or less ruthless campaigns against Communist insurgencies. In all cases, they were bitterly attacked by the Left and by “world opinion” in general.
But Communism, like radical Islam, is a permanent enemy of democracy. The handful of countries that remain Communist–Cuba and North Korea may be the last survivors–are islands of primitive despotism. All around the world, on the other hand, authoritarian anti-Communist governments have yielded to democracies, in many cases highly prosperous ones.
I am inclined to believe that Musharraf does intend to bring modernity, including a viable democracy, to Pakistan. If the current measures enable the government to fight the extremists more effectively–a big “if”–the sacrifices they entail will be worthwhile. We can be sure that if the Taliban and similar groups succeed in seizing power in Pakistan, the consequences will be infinitely worse and far more prolonged.
One more thought: Pakistan has nuclear weapons. If the situation there is as grave as Musharraf says, the United States may be confronted, in a few years, by the prospect of al Qaeda and its allies actually possessing the weapons which they have so long sought. Is there a single person who seriously believes that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are the people we want dealing with such a crisis?
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