Sunday, January 15, 2006
Of Missile Attacks and Democracy
According to media reports, late last week American Predator unmanned planes launched missiles at a Pakistani village in an attempt to kill al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri. American intelligence was mistaken and Zawahiri was not present at the time of the attack, which killed at least 17 people (at least some of whom were probably foreign militants involved in destabilizing Afghanistan). The attacks prompted an official protest from President Musharraf’s government and protests across Pakistan. As far as I can tell, commentators are ignoring a big storyline here, as seen from the American perspective. That is, what should be done about America’s relationship with the Pakistani government? This also prompts questions about America’s relationship with other authoritarian governments in the Islamic world. I will begin, however, with Pakistan. To summarize: then-General Musharraf staged a coup in 1999 and has been in power ever since; American policy makers (in both parties) consider him an important ally in the “war on terror” as he supported the war in Afghanistan and has made Pakistan a less welcoming environment for al-Qaeda and its associates than it otherwise would have been. In return, the Bush administration has been one of Musharraf’s few allies. They have provided moral and monetary support and excluded him from the list of places where, as President Bush is fond of saying, “Freedom is (or at least should be) on the march.” However, this relationship between the American and Pakistani governments obscures the fact, at least from Americans, that Pakistan is a troubled country. Islamic fundamentalism is endemic, fuelled by a non-democratic government, a weak economy and a poor educational system. Many boys are educated (female school attendance rates are low) in madrasas, where curriculum consists of studying the Koran. As in other places in the Islamic world, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, anti-Americanism is fuelled largely by American support for an unpopular, unrepresentative government. (The other big issue is, of course, unqualified America support for Israel). This is a recurring problem that American policy-makers have generally ignored. The Bush administration, to their credit, has begun to nudge the Egyptians in a more democratic direction, albeit rather weakly. However, it has been largely silent on democratic shortcomings in other countries it considers strategic allies, like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. A vital aspect of combating Islamic terrorism is to improve America’s image in the Islamic world. The Bush administration acknowledges this and has spent a fair amount of money and time on public relation campaigns. This is ridiculous. A better approach would be to lend genuine support to democratization efforts in these countries. Critics might argue that this could well lead to free elections and bring extreme anti-American elements to power. However, genuine democratic processes will surely soften extremism in these countries. And if America helps bring about free and fair elections in Pakistan, does it not seem likely that Pakistanis will look upon America with a kinder eye?