- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf has become a casualty of his own artifice. In his effort to neutralize his strongest political adversaries ahead of the election held earlier this month, he bolstered the power of Pakistan's most volatile political players religious fundamentalists. The power that fundamentalists have gained in the election is without precedent in Pakistan, and will probably effect U.S. efforts to ferret out al Qaeda terrorists along the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Gen. Musharraf had reason to keep a close eye on legislative and provincial votes, since the new legislature will elect the next prime minister. Provincial governments, in practice if not in law, hold power independent from federal authority. Provincial heads also hold a seat on Pakistan's policy-making National Security Council. Gen. Musharraf himself was not up for a vote in the election. He claims that a referendum he held in April confirms his mandate as president of Pakistan.
The secular and pro-Western parties of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were expected to make a strong showing in the election. But in a calculus that went awry, Gen. Musharraf sought to limit the popularity of these parties, and thereby diverted opposition support to the religious-party coalition. Some political analysts predicted such an outcome a caution this page raised on the eve of the election. Gen. Musharraf blocked the return of Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif to Pakistan for the elections and gave the religious coalition more freedom to campaign than any of the other parties.
Gen. Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-a-Azam party, an offshoot of Mr. Sharif's political party, won 77 of 342 seats in the legislature, more than any other party. Despite Gen. Musharraf's equivocal support of democracy, many Pakistanis are impressed with the stability of his government and anti-corruption efforts. Mrs. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party won 63 seats. Mr. Shawaz's faction of the Muslim League won 14.
The religious coalition, Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, won 45 seats. In the 1997 elections, religious parties picked up just two seats in the legislature, which then had 272 seats. And in the past decade, the parties have never won more than five seats in parliament. The coalition also gained control of two of four provinces the North West Frontier province and Baluchistan, both on the border with Afghanistan.
Of course, the strength of the coalition isn't solely attributable to Gen. Musharraf's efforts to counter the popularity of his main political adversaries. The coalition also won the support of Pakistanis opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in the country, a potential war on Iraq and the war in Afghanistan issues that have not been a factor in past elections.
The strength of the religious coalition will undoubtedly complicate U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. The two provinces that the coalition captured are believed to be prime locations for terrorist holdouts, since the border with Afghanistan is porous and sympathies with the Taliban, as evidenced in the election, run high. The coalition has called for the exit of U.S. troops from Pakistan. Provincial governments, it is also feared, could harbor al Qaeda members and send fighters into Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops. Though Gen. Musharraf has reiterated his support for the U.S. presence, a collision of wills between the provinces and Gen. Musharraf could cause a crisis. Provincial governments control a budget, police forces and a large delegation of paramilitary scouts.
"You now have the encouragement, resources and environment for a rebirth of the Taliban. This is really colossal, what has happened," said Akbar Ahmed, who administered the tribal border region of Waziristan, adjacent to Baluchistan. Given the new power of the coalition along the border, Mr. Ahmed expects a new front to open up in the war on terror.
Still, the coalition's ability to counter the rule of Gen. Musharraf is checked by its diversity. Some of the parties in the group are Islamic moderates, and aren't expected to support a radical confrontation with central authority.
Some observers have interpreted the surge of fundamentalists in Pakistan as proof that democracy in that country runs counter to U.S. interests. But Gen. Musharraf's fumbling with the process strengthened, to some degree, the hand of fundamentalists. U.S. troops will undoubtedly face new challenges along the border.

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