Pakistan continues its slide into misery. A deeply flawed election in October 2002 produced a hung parliament, with no party winning an outright majority. General Pervez Musharraf's favored party, the newly created Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) won a plurality of seats, then cobbled together a coalition regime with the support of six Islamist parties. Musharraf was quick to claim that he had effectively transferred power to an elected body, but thanks to an appalling array of amendments to the constitution that he imposed by fiat, he now wields the power to dismiss the National Assembly at will. Furthermore, the general, who appointed himself president, has also arrogated to himself the right to pass decrees that have the force of law. Perversely enough, these efforts to firmly entrench his position, as well that of the military establishment, leave the regime more vulnerable to a range of acute domestic and international challenges. Worse still, the regime's policy choices under the military's tutelage could very well exacerbate these problems.

The tenuous legitimacy of Musharraf's regime constitutes a very fragile bulwark against a variety of turbulent social currents that course through Pakistani society-including the rise of radical Islam, the growth of lawlessness, and the widening of socioeconomic disparities. Many of these currents have gathered greater force in the wake of the American-led war effort against Iraq. American efforts to persuade Pakistanis that the war against Saddam Hussein's regime does not amount to an attack on Islam have met with little success. Since the onset of the Iraq war a number of large and tumultuous public demonstrations have shaken major Pakistani cities, especially those in the vulnerable western parts of Pakistan that abut the border with Afghanistan. Musharraf's regime, which had initially sought to maintain a noncommittal stance on the U.S. action in Iraq because of its acute financial dependence on the United States, has been forced by growing domestic discontent to openly denounce the war.

Despite this nod to domestic disenchantment it is far from clear that the regime is out of the woods. Before the October elections the military had done much to cripple the country's two principal political parties-the Pakistan People's Party and the Muslim League (Nawaz). But in so doing the regime gave a foothold to the numerous previously marginalized religious parties, which now have come to the fore. Now these parties and the religious zealots who are attracted to their fold may become a threat to the regime's stability because of their profound reservations about the U.S-led war and the overall alliance with the United States.

Apart from coping with internal dissent, the Pakistani military establishment also fears that its acquisition of ballistic missile technology from and transfer of nuclear weapons designs to North Korea could make it the next target of American wrath. The re-imposition in late March 2003 of limited American sanctions on the government's A. Q. Khan nuclear research laboratories, which played an integral role in the development of Pakistan's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, have reinforced these misgivings. Yet Musharraf evinces little interest in severing Pakistan's links with the North Koreans.

Nor has he demonstrated any sagacity in his dealings with India on the Kashmir question. Even in the face of growing domestic tensions and international disapprobation, his regime has continued its feckless support to several of the most vicious terrorist organizations operating in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The combination of American distraction with the Iraq war and India's political inability to strike back has opened the window for Pakistan to revive its support to these groups. The most recent attack occurred on March 24 in a hamlet outside Srinagar, where militants dragged 24 Hindu residents, including women and children, out of their homes and shot them in cold blood. Such terrorist acts continue to bleed India yet fail to loosen its grip on Kashmir. They also make the hawkish elements in the Indian leadership even more intransigent, thereby further diminishing any prospect of reduced tensions and the resumption of a dialogue with Pakistan.

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  • Sumit Ganguly is Professor of Asian Studies and Government at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions since 1947."
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