- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

Pakistanis will go to the polls tomorrow to vote "yes" or "no" on a proposal put forward by their president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for returning democracy to Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999, proposes the following: Continuing Pakistan's local government system, establishing democracy, eliminating sectarianism and extremism, and working toward Islamic unity and the elimination of political terrorism. If Gen. Musharraf wins a majority of votes, he will serve as president for the next five years. If he loses, someone else could take his place following elections in October 2002.
Glaringly absent from the ballot is any reference to the president's growing ties with the United States, a relationship that has destabilized his government and that makes it more critical than ever that he have some visible sign of support from his people. News reports last week that U.S. advisers would assist Pakistanis in finding al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan came at a difficult time for Gen. Musharraf, who risks a political backlash from Islamic political parties. For now, Pakistan is trying to keep any cooperation with America quiet. For Gen. Musharraf, however, the next chapter of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship will be the ultimate test of whether America is a friend or foe of Pakistan.
In addition to reconnaissance operations in Pakistan by covert U.S. military units, Washington also has warplanes, special-operations troops and regular forces at four Pakistani military bases. But, in a meeting last week with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, Islamabad's ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, refused to confirm reports that U.S. advisers were helping in the hunt for al Qaeda fighters, and said that any joint missions would be decided on a case-by-case basis. Whether the reports are true or not, it is clear that intelligence sharing between American and Pakistani forces will be vital in fighting terrorists.
Should the Pakistani people endorse continuing his tenure for another five years, Mr. Musharraf will face some difficult challenges. He will need to demonstrate to India that he has made a concerted effort to crack down on terrorists hiding in Kashmir, something he has yet to do. Border security will need to be strengthened on two borders: to prevent terrorists from entering Pakistan from Afghanistan, and to prevent militants from launching attacks from Pakistan on India. Yet, Gen. Musharraf has proven to be a strong and indispensible ally of the United States, one whose pro-American sentiments would be difficult to find among his opponents.
As disillusioned as some Pakistanis may be over Gen. Musharraf's close cooperation with the United States, they should consider what the alternative would be were he not in power: Afghanistan, Part II? Then they should vote their consciences.


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