SYLHET, Bangladesh -- The new Pakistani prime minister is distancing his government from the U.S.-sponsored "war on terror" that President Pervez Musharraf carried on for six years. In so doing, Yousaf Raza Gillani is reviving a stance typically adopted by Pakistan's democratic regimes that succeeded pro-American dictatorships.
"Dictators always supported American policy to make themselves accepted" internationally, Peshawar University anthropologist Jamil Ahmed told me during a recent trip through Pakistan's tribal areas. "But democracy gives people a sense of pride and makes them resent foreign hegemony." Their resentment is heightened by America's support of dictatorships.
The American neoconservatives who argue that democracy is an antidote for anti-Americanism in Muslim societies don't get this point.
Mr. Gillani came into the Pakistani parliament in 1985 as a prot?g? of the pro-American military dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Ditched by the Zia regime, he joined the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) from which he now leads a democratic government. To America's chagrin, his government has vowed to stop military operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida and engage them in a dialogue.
Mr. Gillani's coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), was another prot?g? of General Zia's, under whom he became chief minister of Punjab. After the dictator's death in a 1988 plane crash, Mr. Sharif switched to democratic politics and was twice elected prime minister. His objection to the "war on terror" is even more forceful than that of the PPP leaders.
"We are dealing with our own people," Mr. Sharif said. "When you have a problem with your own family, you don't kill your own family. You sit and talk."
The clash between democratic Pakistani regimes and American policy dates to the charismatic leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been brought into politics by the leaders of Pakistan's first military coup d'etat. As the foreign minister of the dictator Mohammad Ayub Khan, Mr. Bhutto told me during an interview that "Western democracy is not suited" to Pakistan.
But Mr. Bhutto plunged into a democratic movement after being fired by General Ayub, and once elected prime minister, he vehemently resisted American pressure to abandon Pakistan's nuclear-arms program. Mr. Bhutto's daughter, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, blamed her father's overthrow and execution by General Zia on a conspiracy hatched in the U.S.
General Musharraf, the current president, had become an international pariah after his 1999 military coup. He jumped on America's "war on terror" bandwagon to gain international legitimacy, but his anti-Taliban campaign has made him a domestic pariah as well. Polls have shown Osama bin Laden to be more popular.
Most Pakistanis blame America and Mr. Musharraf for the rise of terrorism in Pakistan. "There were no suicide attacks in Pakistan or Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion [of Afghanistan] and Musharraf's crackdown" on the Taliban and other militants, said Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, executive director of the Center for Peace and Development Initiatives in Islamabad.
It is a good thing that American diplomats John Negroponte and Richard Boucher have engaged the Gillani government in discussions over terrorism. Instead of trying to dictate made-in-America anti-terrorist measures, which proved counterproductive under Mr. Musharraf and would not be acceptable to the new government, they should let the Gillani regime try its democratic tools of dialogue and persuasion.
They might work. And America should think twice before coddling the next Pakistani dictator.
Mustafa Malik, an Indian-born columnist in Washington, worked as a journalist in Pakistan. He recently returned from a research stint in the Indian subcontinent. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.