This past summer, as Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf stood, swords crossed with the band of his eclectic opposition, an audiotaped message from Osama bin Laden surfaced. “Musharraf’s insistence on continuing his loyalty, submissiveness and aid to America,” declared the voice, “makes armed rebellion against him and removing him obligatory.”

The timing of the message left little doubt that the leader of Al Qaeda aimed to capitalize on the unrest caused by the country’s freewheeling street movement–even attempting to grab its reins. But it was a futile attempt. Sure, the movement of lawyers, students, human rights activists and journalists demanded an end to military rule, but it was not interested in bin Laden’s utopia; it was mobilized to empower the country’s assertive judiciary, which was enacting fundamental democratic reform and tipping the balance of power in favor of civilian forces for the first time in Pakistan’s history.

But how was it that the leader of Al Qaeda was in a position to contemplate an alliance with a movement built around the demands for judicial independence and stronger institutional checks and balances? This was never part of the “global war on terror” program. Terrorism was to be countered by democracy: “Freedom and the development of democratic institutions,” the National Security Strategy of 2002 stated, are America’s weapons in eradicating terrorism and oppression from the globe.

Unfortunately, Washington never seemed interested in applying its rhetoric to Pakistan. Had it really ensured the growth over the past six years of solid democratic institutions in the world’s second-largest Muslim country, there might have been little reason to draw up plans for doomsday scenarios to secure the country’s nuclear installations in case one army officer fell from power. Instead, Washington has maintained its alliance with the increasingly unpopular ruler and pumped billions of dollars of aid into an imperious military (it is also America’s third-largest client of military hardware), thereby weakening all other institutions of the state and fueling unrest in the country. In doing so, Imran Khan, a leader popular among the growing urban middle classes, warned recently, “Americans are pushing people who are in favour of democracy…towards extremism.”

The “war on terror” landed next door in Afghanistan in 2001, and in Pakistan it produced all the wrong results. In the general elections in 2002, widely accepted as rigged by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to ensure General Musharraf’s political survival, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Action Front, a coalition of Islamist parties (some conservative and militant), swept the entire west of the country, forming governments in two of Pakistan’s four provinces. It was an unprecedented advance in a country where religious parties had never managed to win more than a tiny fraction of the popular vote. Militancy has only grown since. America’s failure in Afghanistan has steadily boiled over into Pakistan through a 1,600-mile porous western border. Today, a war rages between self-styled Pakistani Taliban and the army a few hours north of the capital, in the once-majestic tourist resort of Swat. In 2007 alone there have been more than forty suicide attacks all over Pakistan, most aimed at military forces, compared with none six years ago.

Washington is trying to conjure up an alliance between the increasingly unpopular and erratic former general and a widely discredited Benazir Bhutto, who is being tried in international courts for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from Pakistanis during her two tenures as prime minister. Washington appears to believe that these “moderates”–not the urban masses pleading for the rule of law–form America’s best line of defense in a fight against the guerrilla militancy that is feeding off popular discontent. The approach is convenient “strategic policy”–just as supporting the mujahedeen once was, in another war at another time in the same place.America’s policy-makers have always been more inclined to deal with all-powerful generals and intelligence agencies than with the people and their representatives in Pakistan. Strategic policy has consistently taken precedence over respect for the country’s democratic institutions.

Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947 and appeared on the map as the largest Muslim country in the world. But in contrast to some other colonial Muslim states, it was not generals or warlords but lawyers, politicians, students and activists who led a bare-knuckled movement against British rule, which would in turn lay the foundations of a constitutional republic.

Though the civil-military power balance in the country has always been stacked against civil democratic forces, thanks in part to heavy American aid that has poured in during times of army rule, democratic institutions remain ingrained in the state. So fundamental are they that the five times the military has taken over, it has depended on the country’s courts to grant it popular legitimacy. It was a reversal of this compliant policy by the Supreme Court this year that led to Musharraf’s coup against the judiciary.

The attack on the judiciary has reawakened the country’s educated and growing but historically depoliticized middle classes, who have poured out onto the streets. Dressed in black suits and ties, the Pakistani lawyers fighting for reinstatement of sacked judges chant, “We made Pakistan! We’ll save Pakistan!” They seem supremely confident of their country’s ability to restore its sixty-year-old democratic promise.

Sadly, the movement battles American policy in the “war on terror,” which seems (at best) to make little effort to support them. They are being jailed by the thousands by a US-supported ruler. Some old-guard politicians–former prime ministers Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and even major Islamist leaders–are still tempted to throw their chips in with the military establishment.

The movement is not blindly pro-American, but its members are most definitely not sympathetic to the vision of the Taliban, who have made steady inroads during Musharraf’s rule. Torn between embattled extremes, they see an opportunity to finally reconcile the state’s secular democratic foundation and Muslim national identity. But faced with continued ambivalence from major political players inside the country and the international community, they could simply disappear. That would be a shame, for they could be America’s most natural and potent allies in this dismal war.

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