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How is Pakistan Changing Under Musharraf's Leadership? - 2002-02-15

During his visit to Washington this week, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf offered his vision for his country, a wide-ranging and ambitious undertaking.

Do not believe all the bad news about Pakistan, said President Pervez Musharraf in a speech at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center. It is in far better shape than reports suggest.

"I keep telling everyone Pakistan is a moderate Islamic society. I say that with full conviction. Pakistanis are religious certainly, but they are not extremists. The proof of this is that when I took a number of measures against religious extremism, my actions were welcomed by the masses at large," he told the audience.

President Musharraf said there is intense religious feeling in Pakistan as elsewhere in the Muslim world. But he believes it is under control. Support for religious parties is much exaggerated. Pakistan will never become a theocracy.

He said the government is now curbing political activity in mosques and starting to broaden the education in the narrowly fundamentalist madrassas. Economic progress must accompany this crackdown, he said, as Pakistan restructures its burdensome debt and invests in grass roots projects to relieve the country's poverty.

President Musharraf also offered his roadmap for achieving democracy in Pakistan. "At the moment, although I am not elected, the true essence of democracy is there in Pakistan even now. We have already established a local government on the fourteenth of August last year. This, people say, is a silent revolution in Pakistan. It is the true empowerment of the people of Pakistan because it gives them political, administrative and financial authority at the district level," he said.

General and provincial elections are scheduled for October.

Progress in Pakistan also depends on peace with its neighbor India, said the President, noting how close the two countries have come to another war.

"I and my government believe in addressing all issues, especially the core issue of Kashmir, over which Pakistan and India have fought so many wars, and over which even now today there is tension on the borders. We expect sincerity and purposeful negotiations from India to move forward to resolve the Kashmir dispute and all other issues bedeviling our relationship," he explained.

The president quite accurately describes Pakistan, says Teresita Schaffer, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka and director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But the president must stay on course.

"There is a silent majority in Pakistan that wants to distance itself from some of the things that the militants have been doing, particularly the sectarian strife that they have been stirring up. I think he has kept the military high command with him, and that is the main thing that matters," she says.

But the military is also an obstacle on his road to democracy, says Ambassador Schaffer. As a former army chief of staff, he is fully committed to it. "He wants arguably to discipline it and institutionalize it, but he wants it to remain strong. Some people argue that because the army is the strongest organization in Pakistan, the army should continue to play a role. Others would argue that as long as the army is playing a substantial role, this will really distort the creation of viable political institutions in Pakistan," she says.

Yet democracy is still possible with a strong army, says Ambassador Schaffer, if there are an independent judiciary and election commission and better habits in the conduct of government, as indicated by President Musharraf's pledge to root out corruption.

She adds that to realize his vision, President Musharraf needs to show some benefits from the U.S. relationship. That means the United States must stay committed to Pakistan and not be distracted by conflicts elsewhere.