Washington, Jan.24 : A South Asia expert attached with the Heritage Foundation here, has said that holding fair and transparent elections provides the best chance for Pakistan to stabilize in the near and long-term future. She also favours the U.S. using tough and reasoned diplomatic persuasion to convince Islamabad to work closely with it not only against al-Qaeda but also against the Taliban, emphasizing that such an approach will serve Pakistan's long-term strategic interests.
In a statement made before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the sub-committee on the Middle East and South Asia, Lisa Curtis said a popularly elected civilian government working hand-in-hand with a strong military focused on its primary mission of battling extremists would provide stability and security for the people of Pakistan.
Recalling the dramatic and largely negative developments in that country in 2007, Curtis said the events in Pakistan over the last ten months, raise questions about U.S. policy options for helping to tame a growing unrest.
While she admits that there has been some discussion of the formation of a national unity government in the run-up to an election, Curtis cautions that such a step should only be pursued with the full agreement of the major political parties and with the understanding that it would help restore democratic rule.
She further warns in her testimony that a flawed election would lead to further civil unrest that could bring Pakistan to a dangerous tipping point.
Pakistan, she says, has held eight elections in its 60-year history, but the one next month may prove to be the most important one yet.
President Musharraf's credibility has plummeted in the eyes of most Pakistanis, and his regime's handling of the Bhutto assassination has only compounded his problems, she adds.
Curtis further goes on to say that the situation in Pakistan is fluid and delicate, and cautions the Bush Administration to refrain from making abrupt policy changes.
Instead, Washington should remain engaged with both civilian politicians and the military leadership in an effort to ensure Pakistan weathers the current tumult.
Washington should also increasingly view Musharraf as a transitional figure whose influence is likely to decline in the months ahead.
Predicting that the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan will go through an adjustment period, Curtis says Washington needs to think of ensuring a more broad-based government run by civilians in Pakistan, and this can only be done with patience.
She is also of the view that the Musharraf government has failed to rein in extremism and terrorism in the country, and adds that for both the United States and Pakistan, confronting terrorism and extremism in Pakistan will be a long-term and multi-pronged effort.
"Washington and Islamabad need to develop a strategic approach to the problem," she adds.
She also says that the February 18 election of a new parliament and Prime Minister is unlikely to impact substantially the overall approach of the military leadership in dealing with the terrorist safe haven along the Afghan border.
Pakistani leaders will have to take an unequivocal stand against the terrorist threat and back up their public statements with actions, she says.
As far as U.S. assistance programs to Pakistan are concerned, Curtis says Washington should continue to provide robust economic and military assistance programs, but improve the way it monitors and leverages this aid.
"Recent calls to cut military assistance, on the other hand, are unhelpful. The U.S. already cut F-16 sales to Pakistan once in the past, and doing so again will only confirm for many Pakistanis that the U.S. is a fickle partner not to be trusted," she warns.
"Cutting U.S. military assistance to Pakistan would demoralize the Pakistan Army and jeopardize our ability to garner close counter-terrorism cooperation, thus playing into the game plan of extremists seeking to create a sense of chaos in the country," she adds.
Over the long term, U.S. assistance should encourage political reform that incorporates the institutions of the tribal lands fully into the Pakistani system.
While there is no immediate threat to the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons during the current political transition, Washington, she says, will need to be diligent in pursuing policies that promote the safety and security of Islamabad's nuclear assets.
In support of free polls, the U.S. should publicly call on Musharraf to lift media curbs; release all activists, lawyers, and politicians detained during emergency rule-- including President of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association and PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan; work with the political parties to ensure the neutrality of the election commission; re-establish the independence of the judiciary; and lift unnecessary restrictions on international observers, such as banning exit polling.
In conclusion, the U.S. must remain closely engaged with Pakistani civilian politicians and the military leadership during the political transition.