Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation was studying Pakistan long before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto hurled that country of 165 million onto our front pages. A former CIA analyst and State Department adviser who specialized in India-Pakistan relations, Curtis has lived in Pakistan and India. As a Heritage senior fellow, she keeps her eye on America’s economic, security and political relationships with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I talked to her about the volatile political situation in Pakistan by phone on Thursday, Jan. 3, from her office in Washington, D.C.
Q: They postponed the elections until Feb. 18. Does that matter in any significant way?
A: I really think an election delay was inevitable. You had one of the primary contestants for the election killed just two weeks before the vote. Given the emotional response in Pakistan — you had looting and some violence over the last few days — I think it made sense to delay the election. Now it is important that the Musharraf government use this delay to do everything in its power to assure the transparency and fairness of this election.
Q: Can President Pervez Musharraf survive — and does it really matter, since he apparently hasn’t been really living up to his promises to run as an enlightened and moderate leader?
A: Yeah. He hasn’t really lived up to that vision that he spelled out three and a half years ago now. He spelled out very eloquently a vision for Pakistan as a moderate progressive state. He coined the term “enlightened moderation.” However, he hasn’t really taken concrete steps to lead his country in this directly, namely closing down once and for all these religious schools, which basically indoctrinate Pakistanis to violence. They teach hatred of the West. They are connected with the militant groups. They are dangerous. So he needs to take steps to close them down, which he has not done.
His government also needs to take a more clear and unambiguous stand towards all terrorism and (send) … a clear signal that no terrorism will be tolerated in Pakistan — no matter the cause and no matter who the person is.
Q: Are most Pakistanis truly interested in creating a stable and relatively decent democracy?
A: I think most Pakistanis are moderate in their outlook. Most Pakistanis want democracy. They want rule of law and they’re willing to support a stable government. But they have grown weary of military rule.
Q: Why should we care who is running Pakistan or what kind of government it is?
A: We definitely should care about Pakistan. This assassination of Bhutto only reminds us that Pakistan increasingly finds itself at the ideological center of this battle against global extremism. Al-Qaida certainly has an agenda. They are trying to provoke instability and chaos there so they can have a new base and eventually gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. So certainly the U.S. has to be closely engaged and encourage stability in this country.
Q: Are America’s interests and a stable, progressive, relatively democratic Pakistan mutually exclusive?
A: No. They are mutually reinforcing. It’s become increasingly clear that to have a stable Pakistan, we have to have democracy. What that means in the immediate term is a credible election on Feb. 18. I’ll come back again to saying how important it is for President Musharraf to play a unifying role for his country, to build consensus with the political parties so that Pakistan can have a free and fair election. There probably has never been a time that a free and fair election has been more important for Pakistan than right now. It will contribute to stability in the country. It will allow whoever is elected to bring along the public in the fight against terrorism.
One of the problems is that as support for Musharraf has eroded, he has been closely associated with the U.S., and so public support for the war on terrorism has declined, as has public support for the U.S. in general. Pakistanis have only seen the war on terrorism as something that is only important for U.S. interests. That’s just not the case. Pakistan’s own future depends on it fighting extremism. An elected government would be a strong partner for the U.S. It would help bolster the Pakistani public support for fighting extremism.
Q: What would characterize operations in those tribal areas in northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan as successful? Aren’t the Taliban and al-Qaida stronger there today than they were five years ago?
A: Absolutely. The tribal areas issue is going to have to be the number-one priority with Pakistan. We just can not tolerate there being a safe haven for our enemies there, who are plotting and training for terrorist activities across the globe, who are destabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and fighting our forces. This has to be our number-one priority. And yes, the problem has gotten worse.
The Pakistan government has redeployed its forces in this area. But I don’t think it’s going to be able to handle this issue on its own. I think Pakistan is going to have to allow the U.S. to bring its own military and intelligence resources to bear on the situation. We’re going to have to find out a cooperative strategy, because this is not only a problem for Pakistan. This is a global problem. These extremists in these areas represent a global problem.
Q: What should we be most worried about happening in Pakistan in the near term?
A: The worst thing that could happen right now is that an election is held that people perceive as being rigged and as basically being a bad election. That would cause a lot of instability and protests in the streets and a lot of confusion and chaos. The people of Pakistan want stability. It’s now incumbent on Musharraf to ensure that the election process is free and fair. The issue goes beyond him. It’s about his country, a country of 165 million, and its future. It’s extremely important that we have a good, credible election, that Pakistanis buy into the process it, take part in the process and have faith in whoever the elections bring to the fore.