This Is Pakistan's War

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

'If [people] are permitted to choose their own destiny -- the extremists will be marginalized.' True or false?

In one of his many speeches on the sources of Islamic terrorism, George W. Bush argued that "when a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme." In Bush's opinion, the antidote is democracy. As he said in another address, "If [people] are permitted to choose their own destiny, and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women, then the extremists will be marginalized, and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow, and eventually end."

Pakistan took Bush's advice last week, and in a historic election voted for a democratic future. The results returned to power civilian parties that had based their campaigns on opposition to the rule of President Pervez Musharraf. And what has been the reaction of the Bush administration? Awkwardness and ambivalence toward the victors, affection toward Musharraf. After the results came in, Bush called the Pakistani leader to congratulate him on holding the elections. "We are going to continue to work with President Musharraf," said Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman. In the most important real-world test of the Bush thesis--that democracy destroys terrorism--George Bush finds himself opposed to his own rhetoric.

If Bush the statesman is hypocritical, is Bush the political scientist right? Does democracy prevent the breeding of terrorism? The scholar Gregory Gause of the University of Vermont has pointed out that, by almost all calculations, most terrorist attacks take place in democracies, not authoritarian countries. According to one study, between 1976 and 2004 there were 400 terrorist attacks in India and 18 in China. This may be because terrorist attacks are easier to pull off in open societies. Such attacks are also more effective: if the purpose is to create mass panic and thus influence government policy, where better to strike than a highly responsive political system.

But the broader explanation is surely that the origins of terrorism are more complex than a simple lack of democracy. After all, the Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship and it did not spawn terrorist groups. India has suffered so many terrorist attacks over the past four decades because it is a highly diverse country in which many different groups feel deeply about their identity and autonomy. Saudi Arabia has bred its terrorists by encouraging a purist and militant streak of Islam.

Pakistan, like Saudi Arabia, is a state defined by religion. But its terrorism problem is recent, bred because it served as the conduit and recruiting ground for jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. …