Beware Pashtunistan

Benazir Bhutto's narrow escape from assassination recently was a grim reminder she'll be lucky to get through the coming election alive. Even if she does, the vote may prove a charade, and Bhutto could end up providing civilian camouflage for continued military rule—provoking unrest and strengthening separatist forces in this deeply divided country.

The January parliamentary race, like most Pakistani elections under military rule, will likely be rigged by the Army and intelligence agencies. EU observers called the 2002 presidential election "deeply flawed," and during the five decades I've covered Pakistan, I've witnessed repeated cases of intimidation of opposition figures. The country's Election Commission, appointed by President Pervez Musharraf, has already made an outlandish attempt to cook the books this year. In 2002, 71.8 million voters registered to vote. With the population growing at 2.7 percent a year and a voting age of 18, the number should have increased to about 82 million this time. Yet when the electoral lists were announced five months ago, they included just 55 million, and Bhutto alleges many of the "lost" voters were women, her strongest supporters. The maneuver was ultimately blocked by a court order and U.S. pressure, and last week the commission published new lists including 80 million Pakistanis. But further shenanigans seem likely; a Pakistani daily, Dawn, has reported on tricks already underway including the use of "ghost polling booths" to misdirect voters.

The likely result will be that Bhutto gets just enough Assembly seats to become prime minister—but not enough to enforce the meaningful power-sharing deal that Musharraf promised. That will mean continued military rule, perpetuating the power of key Islamist sympathizers in the government whom Bhutto would like to remove and fanning discontent among ethnic minorities, including Pashtuns, in the borderlands where the Taliban holds sway.

The Taliban, a primarily Pashtun group, exploits secessionist sentiment among the 41 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. The Pashtuns (as well as Pakistan's other ethnic minorities, the Baluchis and Sindhis) have long resisted domination by Pakistan's Punjabis, who control the armed forces. U.S. and Pakistani airstrikes against the Taliban and jihadist groups in Pashtun areas have caused large-scale civilian casualties, intensifying resentment. And Musharraf's war against Islamic extremists has further inflamed tensions; many of the 300 seminary students killed in the July assault on the Red Mosque, a jihadist stronghold in Islamabad, were Pashtun girls. In September, the father of one of them—an officer in an elite commando unit—blew himself up in a military mess hall, killing 19, as he shouted Pashtun nationalist slogans.

All this has raised the specter that a breakaway "Pashtunistan" will emerge under Islamist leadership. Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani—himself a Pashtun—warned of this last spring: "I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don't merge. If that happens, we've had it, and we're on the verge of that."

Pakistan's ethnic minorities hope that if Bhutto, a Sindhi, gets a strong majority in Parliament, she'll support the provincial autonomy envisaged in the country's 1973 Constitution, which was adopted during the presidency of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but later shelved by military rulers.

The United States should go all-out to encourage a free election now. It should press Musharraf, in the run-up to the vote, to hand over power to a genuinely neutral caretaker government formed in consultation with opposition parties and headed by an independent figure like Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. To make this happen, Washington should threaten to cut off not only its $1.5 billion congressionally mandated military aid program to Pakistan but also the direct U.S. subsidies paid to Pakistan's armed forces, which started in 2001 and will reach $7.5 billion next year. These subsidies, described as reimbursement for counterterrorism operations, have flowed freely in recent years regardless of the effectiveness of Pakistan's antiterror operations. Tying them to real progress in governance would get Musharraf's attention; indeed, it's the only way to ensure his cooperation.