Zakaria: Pakistan's War

In one of his many speeches on the sources of Islamic terrorism, George W. Bush argued that "when a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme." In Bush's opinion, the antidote is democracy. As he said in another address, "If [people] are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end."

Pakistan took Bush's advice last week, and in a historic election voted for a democratic future. The results returned to power civilian parties that had based their campaigns on opposition to the rule of President Pervez Musharraf. And what has been the reaction of the Bush administration? Awkwardness and ambivalence toward the victors, affection toward Musharraf. After the results came in, Bush called the Pakistani leader to congratulate him on holding the elections. "We are going to continue to work with President Musharraf," said Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman. In the most important real-world test of the Bush thesis—that democracy destroys terrorism—George Bush finds himself opposed to his own rhetoric.

If Bush the statesman is hypocritical, is Bush the political scientist right? Does democracy prevent the breeding of terrorism? The scholar Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont has pointed out that, by almost all calculations, most terrorist attacks take place in democracies, not authoritarian countries. According to one study, between 1976 and 2004 there were 400 terrorist attacks in India and 18 in China. This may be because terrorist attacks are easier to pull off in open societies. Such attacks are also more effective: if the purpose is to create mass panic and thus influence government policy, where better to strike than a highly responsive political system.

But the broader explanation is surely that the origins of terrorism are more complex than a simple lack of democracy. After all, the Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship and it did not spawn terrorist groups. India has suffered so many terrorist attacks over the past four decades because it is a highly diverse country in which many different groups feel deeply about their identity and autonomy. Saudi Arabia has bred its terrorists by encouraging a purist and militant streak of Islam.

Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, is a state defined by religion. But its terrorism problem is recent, bred because it served as the conduit and recruiting ground for jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This problem was then exacerbated by various forces—a military eager for proxies, the collapse of state capacity in fields like education, and the continuing neglect of Pakistan's tribal areas. The notion that any simple solution, like elections, will magically cure these deep-rooted problems is a mistake.

Last week's vote will likely alleviate Pakistan's political and constitutional crisis. Musharraf had perpetuated his rule by sacking Supreme Court justices and altering the Constitution last year, moves that were extremely unpopular. The rebirth of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, which went from 16 seats in the 2002 parliamentary elections to 69, is the best indication of how loathed Musharraf had become, since Sharif's only campaign themes were the restoration of the judiciary and ouster of the president. While Sharif and Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, have not worked out exactly how they will unravel Musharraf's 2007 actions, they seem committed to doing so in some way. At the same time, the lawyers' opposition to Musharraf is being judicious. The president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan, has indicated that as long as the judiciary is restored, some compromises on other issues (Musharraf's fate perhaps?) could be worked out. This is how democracy should work.

But will this bring an end to the jihad? Sharif and Zardari have both spoken about taking a different approach to the militants up in the tribal areas than Musharraf, one that involves more diplomacy and less force. This makes sense in theory and is a version of the counterinsurgency strategy being tried in Iraq: Reach out to the militants, try to make a deal with those who are amenable, and isolate the true irreconcilables, who must then be captured or killed. In fact, Musharraf himself has tried this strategy but with little luck so far. It may be that Musharraf was hesitant about the approach, or did not have the credibility to pull it off. In any event, whatever the civilian government wishes, the Pakistani Army will have to embrace any new approach.

One thing is for sure. If the two parties which together won almost two thirds of the vote adopt a forthright anti-terror strategy, it will be seen as a Pakistani strategy, not one being directed by the Army or the Americans. Until now, the battles against militants have been seen as America's obsession. What democracy could do is make Pakistanis understand that this is their war.