by Gov Bill Richardson
Some in Washington say we should stick with the dictator, because they fear chaos might follow his departure. But the risk of chaos is far greater if Musharraf remains. Only a new government, with broader support than Musharraf has, can restore order to Pakistan and reengage an effective fight against AlQaeda and the Taliban.
Last week's murder of Benazir Bhutto and the rioting that spread across the country, show that Musharraf cannot maintain order. He could not provide security for Bhutto, and he cannot provide security for Pakistan. His already meager support is plummeting further. Under Musharraf's rule, Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself with a Pakistani face. The editor of one of Pakistan's largest newspapers recently said that "Al Qaeda is now as much a Pakistani phenomenon as it is an Arab or foreign element." The Bush administration has given Musharraf over $10 billion in military aid - but the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, are now headquartered in Pakistan and are stronger than ever.
Ironically, it is because of Musharraf's failure against Islamism that some say we now must support him. They claim, unconvincingly, that if it were not for Musharraf, radical Islamists might win elections. This is nonsense: Islamist parties have never gotten more than 12 percent of the vote, and recent polls suggest that their current support is even lower. If elections are held soon, polls show that the majority of Pakistanis will vote for the mainstream democratic parties.
But if we continue to prop up the dictator, things could change for the worse. Al Qaeda and Taliban have little use for elections. Their forces are strong in the border regions, and they may be preparing for military moves elsewhere in Pakistan - even against the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. We cannot wait for that to happen. We need to pull our support for the ineffectual dictator and help the Pakistani people restore democracy and an accountable, effective government.
The Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, secret renditions, torture, illegal wiretapping of American citizens - and blind support for Musharraf - stain America's conscience and tarnish our global reputation. Support for Musharraf must end not only because it is provoking disorder, but also because it is alienating the Pakistani people from us. If we fail to stand with the people of Pakistan, and instead stand with the dictator, the Pakistanis will remember it for decades. They will harbor resentment against America, as Iranians have because of our support for the Shah decades ago - then too in the name of a false stability.
Who should replace Musharraf? A temporary government of technocrats, supported externally by a coalition of the main democratic parties, would give Pakistan its best shot at ending the current disorder and holding free and fair elections. The Pakistani Army would continue, as it always has, to strictly safeguard Pakistan's nuclear weapons. There is a precedent: Pakistan had a technocratic government briefly after General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq died suddenly in the 1980s. With Musharraf gone, the citizens of Pakistan would once again be able to elect their own government. Most important for US national security, they would know that America stood with them, and not with the dictator, in their moment of national crisis.
And with a new government in Pakistan will come new opportunities for the United States and the international community to frame a new, smarter, more realistic strategy to hunt down the terrorists who have grown so strong under Musharraf. US intelligence agencies report that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are stronger than ever - headquartered along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We need to stop supporting the man that has allowed this to happen, and instead support the Pakistani people in their struggle to be free of both the terrorists and of the dictator.
Bill Richardson is governor of New Mexico and a Democratic candidate for president.