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Some say the U.S. may find new opportunities to fight terrorism in the days of a new Pakistan regime, even one without ally President Pervez Musharraf.
The party of a major U.S. ally in Pakistan lost heavily in parliamentary elections, but some observers say the results could give the United States new options in the struggle against extremist groups.
They say the key is for the United States to show support for Pakistan's democratic process.
The election was a resounding defeat for the party of President Pervez Musharraf, which lost control of parliament. It was a win for Pakistan's two main opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples' Party and the Pakistan Muslim League faction led by Nawaz Sharif. If they can work together, the two parties have nearly enough seats to form a ruling coalition.
Advising a Hands-Off Approach
Musharraf, a former general who seized power in a 1999 coup, cooperated in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. He was seen by the Bush administration as an "indispensable man," willing to confront Islamic militants within his own borders.
Despite Musharraf's loss, Wendy Chamberlain, the president of the Middle East Institute, calls the election outcome "the best-case scenario." Chamberlain, a former ambassador to Pakistan, says it gives the United States an opportunity to "reassert our own core values and support the right of the Pakistani people to select their own government."
Chamberlain says the United States also shouldn't try to influence any coalition-building among the various parties.
"We made a mistake in the past by being perceived as meddling in the Pakistani political system," Chamberlain says.
George Perkovich, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees with the hands-off principle.
"It's unseemly," he says, "and also, we're no good at it."
Continuing to Fight Terrorism
The one exception Perkovich might make, he says, is for direct U.S. action "to go after the mostly foreign-born people we call terrorists."
He refers to the Jan. 29 attack by a CIA predator drone, which killed Abu Laith al-Libi, who was described by the United States as a senior al-Qaida commander.
Perkovich says such attacks will probably continue, "and my own guess is that the Pakistani political leadership will punt on this, as will the military. Nobody [in the Pakistani leadership] wants to be put on the spot as having approved this stuff, but they'd like to see these guys killed."
Chamberlain is much more cautious, pointing out that previous unilateral U.S. attacks that killed Pakistani civilians took a heavy toll on Musharraf's popularity. Still, she cites a recent poll by the International Republican Institute, which found that 73 percent of Pakistanis were concerned about militant activity.
"The people of Pakistan are just as concerned about extremism as we are," she says.
Acting as a Mediator
Chamberlain says one thing the United States can do is try to reduce the Pakistani government's own involvement with extremist groups by helping to mediate in Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir. She says Pakistani leaders, both civilian and military, have tolerated extremist groups in Kashmir, "because they were useful in harassing the Indians." She says a diplomatic resolution of the Kashmir dispute could help the new Pakistani government make a clean break with extremist groups there, "which are becoming an increasing danger to Pakistan itself."
Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, agrees that Pakistan's involvement with extremist groups in Kashmir taints its efforts to deal with extremists along the border with Afghanistan, as well. Coll, who writes about Pakistan for The New Yorker, says the country needs to give up its strategy of trying to manage jihadi groups for its own ends.
"The U.S.," he says, "also needs to speak clearly and consistently about its goals: to promote a stable constitutional democracy in Pakistan, rather than narrowly focusing on one individual, or on the army."
Ways to Help
One way to do that, Coll says, would be to redirect some U.S. aid.
"Right now, almost all our aid goes to the military. We need to re-balance it so funding goes to fight poverty, provide services, and improve governance and justice," he says.
Former ambassador Chamberlain says U.S. efforts to help the Pakistani justice system should include a show of support for reinstatement of the country's Supreme Court. President Musharraf disbanded the court in November, just as it was about to rule on whether he was qualified to seek another presidential term.
"Al-Qaida and other extremists are all fighting over what kind of law should prevail, Sharia [Islamic religious] law or constitutional law," Chamberlain says. "The U.S. should be supporting constitutional law."
One thing all three observers agree on is that the United States shouldn't expect to see a stable government in place right away. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says that's not necessarily a worrisome thing.
"The issue isn't stability per se. We had this kind of false stability under the dictator, but now we have to keep in mind that Pakistanis are going to have to create their own country," he says.