[2008.01.31]PAKISTAN-On Edge(巴基斯坦:如履薄冰)


On edge


Jan 31st 2008 | LAHORE
From The Economist print edition

If he rigs, he may have to rig big

THE army is battling a Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas of the Afghan border, in which hundreds have been killed in recent weeks. In the cities, activists shouting “Go, Musharraf, Go!” are up in arms about alleged pre-election rigging of the vote due on February 18th. Yet Pakistan’s increasingly edgy president, Pervez Musharraf, went on a ten-day European jaunt to tell the West why he is still Pakistan’s best bet in the “transition to democracy” and the “war against terror”.

In London he berated a respected Pakistani journalist who dared question his government’s efficacy and sincerity in combating extremism. Later he said Pakistanis should thrash such journalists if necessary for being “unpatriotic”, triggering a spate of angry comments.

Mr Musharraf’s war is not going well. The “Pakistani Taliban” have merged under Baitullah Mehsud, a warlord accused by the government of ordering the murder in December of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister. The Pakistani authorities signed a controversial peace deal with Mr Mehsud in 2005. But he used the lull to expand his army of Taliban and suicide-bombers in the tribal area of South Waziristan. Late last year an allied Taliban faction tried to seize large tracts of the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province. Mr Musharraf sent the army into Swat and bombed Mr Mehsud’s hideouts in Waziristan. Mr Mehsud’s followers retaliated by seizing a small town, and cutting off the road to Waziristan. The army is now fighting “miscreants” all over the tribal areas.

Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, the former home minister, admits that the government failed to take “swift and decisive action” against the Taliban. He says the Taliban are well-financed, organised and motivated, and stopping their rise needs the backing of “political parties, civil society, [and] religious leaders”.

This is just what Mr Musharraf does not have. He is hugely unpopular and all the opposition parties want him out. Most Pakistanis also see this as America’s war. This has made it hard to yield to American pressure to put its own boots on the ground in Waziristan against the Taliban. The Americans are providing aerial intelligence, counter-insurgency training and weaponry. Only rarely do the Pakistanis ask for missile attacks from American drones on targets in the border regions.

Meanwhile, it is still not certain that the elections postponed to February 18th will be held. The government has warned political leaders that they are on extremist hit lists. So security worries are curbing campaigning. Most politicians are relying on the electronic media. But the channels are shackled by new gagging laws and cannot give proper coverage to opposition rallies and protests. The air is also thick with allegations of pre-election rigging. Mr Musharraf has refused to nominate a neutral election commission or suspend the progovernment local mayors, who wield enormous influence.

Indeed, with various polls showing the popularity of his party plummeting, everyone believes that Mr Musharraf will have to rig the elections in a big way. His nemeses are the slain Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, at the head of her party, which is riding a wave of sympathy, and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he overthrew in 1999. Last month Mr Musharraf told Pakistani newspaper editors that he foresaw a greater crisis after the elections—if the opposition parties did not accept the results, or ganged up on him in the new parliament. But unless he strikes a deal soon with one of his foes, one of these outcomes seems hard to avoid.

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