- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

The earthquake that has devastated the north of Pakistan and India could also buffet the government of Pakistan. If the disaster response is regarded by the Pakistanis as inadequate or corrupt, the earthquake could prove disastrous for President Pervez Musharraf’s government, which could damage counterterror efforts in South Asia.

The death toll from the earthquake is 30,000 in Pakistan, and could go as high as 40,000. As many as 1 million people have been made homeless by the disaster. The damage in Pakistan was exacerbated by the fact that builders of public facilities had apparently bribed inspection officers in order to sidestep building standards. (Some privately constructed buildings, meanwhile, conspicuously stood up to the earthquake.) Given the extent of the devastation and the role of corruption in contributing to the misery, the Pakistani people have become angry with their government.

Some Pakistanis are therefore questioning whether the public interest may not be better served by Islamist parties that would be expected to pursue anti-corruption measures more vigorously. The Pakistani government is in part protected by people’s low expectations, but if even those expectations are not met and significant amounts of relief funds are squandered, Gen. Musharraf could face a dangerous backlash.

In India, by contrast, the stakes for the government are much more limited. Its legitimacy is strengthened by democratic elections and corruption is not as pervasive as it is in Pakistan. The official earthquake toll in India is far lower — approximately 1,000 people — but it is certain to increase.

The counterterror effort is undoubtedly well-served by the role of NATO and the U.S. military in delivering aid supplies to stricken areas. In addition, the help that India is providing to some Pakistanis can only improve the atmospherics for peace talks. Those positive effects, however, would be eclipsed by a destabilized Musharraf government. Traditional political parties in Pakistan have become so weakened by their own artifice and the president’s manuevering that Islamist parties would be the most likely beneficiaries of Gen. Musharraf’s demise.

It is in America’s current interest to have Gen. Musharraf at the helm in Pakistan, but he will not be around forever, and there is no guarantee that his successor will be as moderate and sober-minded as he is. It is also in the interest of Pakistan ( and that of the United States, its ally) for the country to make measured, incremental progress toward democracy. The Bush administration should award future development aid, but not immediate disaster relief, with that longer-term goal in mind.

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