FINALLY, Congress is asking hard questions about Pakistan. Some lawmakers wonder what the $10 billion in aid to Pakistan has bought if Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has allowed extremists to arm themselves in the Red Mosque for months, the Taliban to recruit and plan attacks with relative freedom, and Al Qaeda to reorganize itself in the border provinces.
Before it left for the August recess, Congress passed legislation placing conditionality on a portion of US military aid to Pakistan for the first time since 9/11. Moreover, it has questions:
Why isn't any action being taken against mosques around the country run by the same kind of jihadi Islamic extremists who recruit suicide bombers to move across the border -- as they did in the last month?
Why aren't the Taliban's command and control centers in Peshawar and Quetta being closed down?
Why has Al Qaeda been allowed to reorganize in Pakistan with more ability to carry out terrorist attacks, as the National Intelligence Estimate disclosed?
This fall offers an opportunity for change. Musharraf's term ends in October, and the following month the National Assemblycompletes its tenure. For the first time since the October 1999 coup, Musharraf's authoritarian rule appears shaky. His attempts at pre-election rigging -- including his onslaught on judicial independence and the media-- illustrate he refuses to commit to free and fair elections and to leave office if the new Parliament names someone else president.
The Pakistani people have registered their desire for a democratic transition with street protests, which have been met by guns and gas. This increasingly vocal opposition, spearheaded by the bar associations, human rights groups, and the media, is channeling public resentment to military rule.
The United States needs to use leverage -- financial and political -- to insist upon free and fair parliamentary and provincial elections, monitored by independent international observers. Anything short of that -- including the call for a state of emergency, postponing elections, or permitting Musharraf to stand for reelection by the current lame-duck assemblies -- will de-legitimize the ballot box. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a useful phone call this week to dissuade Musharraf from declaring emergency rule, much more is needed.
Exiled opposition leaders also must be allowed to return to Pakistan. Pakistan's two national-level parties -- Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League -- are pragmatic centrist forces that will contain fundamentalism -- not accommodate it. These moderates would not ignore an opportunity to capture Al Qaeda operatives hiding out on their turf, and their election could give US leaders confidence in Pakistan's partnership in the war on terror.
If Bhutto and Sharif are not allowed to participate in October's election, their mainstream moderate parties will be further alienated, leaving the political field open to Islamist forces. Reports that Bhutto has been in talks with Musharraf to negotiate her return and work out a power-sharing agreement could be a good first step, but early optimism must be tempered by Musharraf's track record of unwillingness to relinquish any control.
The United States must stay engaged with Pakistan, but engaged in the right way. Supporting a deeply unpopular government -- either tacitly or directly -- is no way to help fight terrorism and neutralize religious extremism. And it puts the United States at even greater risk by feeding the growing anti-American sentiment among pro-democracy Pakistanis. The choice before the United States in Pakistan's election year, with time fast running out, is stark. It can support a return to genuine democracy and civilian rule, which offers the added bonus of containing extremism, or it can sit on the sidelines as Pakistan slides into political chaos, creating an environment in which militancy and radicalism will continue to thrive.
Mark Schneider is senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and a former director of the Peace Corps.