Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Pakistan Matters

One of the main objections to pressuring Pakistan and President Pervez Musharraf is that it matters little to the US what happens in Pakistani domestic politics. While it's nice for the US to support democracies, strategic interests come first and risking instability in Pakistan or pushing Musharraf into the arms of the militants is not worth the minimal benefits of democracy. How and why does it matter whether a country like Pakistan is democratic?

One reason it matters is that countries that suppress civil liberties and political rights, such as freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and democratic principles are much more likely to produce terrorists than are countries that respect and protect those rights. Alan Krueger, the Princeton economist who has long argued that poverty and lack of education are not powerful causal mechanisms in the creation of terrorists, has a fascinating article in The American claiming that "countries with low levels of civil liberties are more likely to be the countries of origin of the perpetra­tors of terrorist attacks." Furthermore:
To investigate the role of societal factors, I assembled data on the country of origin and tar­get of hundreds of significant international terrorist attacks from 1997 to 2003, using infor­mation from the State Department. I found that many socioeconomic indicators—including illiteracy, infant mor­tality, and GDP per capita—are unrelated to whether people from one country become involved in terrorism. Indeed, if anything, measures of economic deprivation, at a country level, have the opposite effect from what the popular stereotype would predict: international terrorists are more likely to come from moderate-income countries than poor ones.

One set of factors that I examined did consis­tently raise the likelihood that people from a given country will participate in terrorism—namely, the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights. Using data from the Freedom House Index, for example, I found that countries with low levels of civil liberties are more likely to be the countries of origin of the perpetra­tors of terrorist attacks. In addition, terrorists tend to attack nearby targets. Even international terror­ism tends to be motivated by local concerns.

The evidence suggests that terrorists care about influencing political outcomes. They are often motivated by geopolitical grievances. To under­stand who joins terrorist organizations, instead of asking who has a low salary and few opportunities, we should ask: Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extrem­ist vision by violent means? Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.
As I've noted earlier, tolerating the authoritarianism of Pakistan and Musharraf isn't paying huge dividends. Al Qaeda is still operating relatively freely and Islamic militants are growing stronger. But, the negative consequences of relative indifference to Pakistan's domestic political situation are huge. At best, Pakistan's liberal parties might seek accommodation with the more militant Islamic groups in an effort to increase their power and challenge Musharraf. At worst, the suspension of democracy, the imprisoning of anyone deemed a threat to the government, and the maintenance of the state of emergency may very well create more terrorists.

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