November 2, 2004

The word in Urdu is "be-sharmi." Think of it as chutzpah, or shamelessness, and you'll understand what President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan did in October in violating his pledges to step down as army chief on Dec. 31, 2004.

In 1999, Musharraf took power in a coup. This year, in order to push through controversial constitutional reforms that increased his powers, Musharraf acceded to widespread demands to step down as army chief as part of the process of returning the country to civilian rule. Last month - the fifth anniversary of his coup - he reneged by securing the passage of the "The President to Hold Another Office Act." Pakistani democracy activists are reeling.

Last year, President George W. Bush, in a widely publicized speech, admitted that the United States had turned a blind eye as dictators and authoritarian rulers in the Muslim world trampled on basic rights and ruled by fiat.

Bush spoke passionately about how democracy and human rights in the Muslim world are critical to combating terrorism. He vowed that future U.S. policy would be different.

Yet when the new Bush doctrine met its first real test, Pakistan, the United States remained silent. Why? The general is a friend of the United States. After Sept. 11, Musharraf immediately announced his support for the United States against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Musharraf has successfully convinced the United States - and other countries - that he is Pakistan's indispensable man. Claiming that only he can save what he destroyed - Pakistan's fragile democracy - Musharraf has essentially been given a pass on Pakistan's nuclear proliferation, the exile and jailing of opposition political leaders and serious human rights abuses by the Pakistani Army.

The Bush administration has uncritically accepted Musharraf's premise that pressuring him too much on human rights and democracy could push the country into the hands of Islamists.

This is a profound misunderstanding of power and political reality in Pakistan. With or without Musharraf, the leadership of the Pakistani military is dedicated to self-preservation and power. It was the military that created the Taliban and then, after Sept. 11, made a U-turn at full speed.

If Musharraf leaves office, it will primarily be because he is viewed as an ineffective CEO for Pakistan Army Inc. His replacement, chosen from within the ranks of the army command, will continue to pursue a pro-U.S. policy with equal zeal. Pakistani generals know that Islamic fundamentalists are just as opposed to the largely secular military establishment as they are to the United States. For Pakistan Army Inc., the United States is the only game in town.

While the Bush administration sees stability, we Pakistanis see a nonperforming state, structured primarily around the preservation of the institutional interests of its military.

The military prioritizes the acquisition of nuclear weapons over accessible schooling, clean drinking water, basic medical care or any meaningful reduction in the poverty of its citizens. It is a systematic human rights abuser. Increasingly these abuses are conducted under the umbrella of the U.S.-led "war on terror."

The Pakistani Army's traditional policy of denying fundamental rights to the tribal belt, encompassing Waziristan along the Afghan border, and its brutality in conducting recent antiterrorist operations there, has created a rebellion that shows every sign of outliving Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the southwestern province of Balochistan, sullenly peaceful until recently, is rapidly moving toward an insurgency as decades of resentment against the Pakistani military come to a head.

Pakistan continues to preside over a host of discriminatory and dangerous laws and practices for women. And while waxing eloquent about "real democracy," it was Musharraf who eviscerated the judiciary by sacking Supreme Court judges who opposed martial law.

Indeed, Pakistan continues to run a pseudodemocracy put in place through elections described as deeply flawed by independent international observers. Musharraf ratified his own position as president through a referendum in which he was the only candidate.

Javed Hashmi, president of the opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, has been sentenced to 23 years in prison. His crime? He read a letter critical of Musharraf to assembled journalists.

The desire of the Bush administration for political stability in Pakistan is no excuse for failing to pursue a proactive human rights agenda with Pakistan. The United States has the leverage, and Pakistan has the experience with democracy, to make it happen. No Muslim country is more able to prove President Bush right, if only he means what he said.

Ali Dayan Hasan is Pakistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

More reporting on: