To know Pakistan, one must know what it is not.Our public discourse has it that "all that stops a jihadi finger finding the nuclear trigger is (Pervez) Musharraf," writes Tariq Ali, the Pakistan-born British author.
Whereas this perception lets the general pose as the lone guardian of the last outpost between civilization and bearded Muslim hordes in caves and madrassas, reality is that "the threat of a jihadi takeover of Pakistan is remote."
The Islamists have never won more than 16 per cent of the vote, and are in power in only two provinces in coalition with others.
The nuclear arsenal is in safe hands. Pakistan's army, whatever else its many sins, is a professional and disciplined outfit, and the keeper of the nuclear key. It is not about to hand it to anyone.
"There are just too many checks and balances for the nuclear program to fall into unstable hands," political analyst Javed Jabbar of Karachi said in a phone interview.
Not all Pakistani militants are drawn to Osama bin Laden's dream of a worldwide caliphate. Jihad is big business in Pakistan. Many a cleric has become rich and powerful preaching it. The greater the injustices against Muslims, the higher the donations.
Pakistan's madrassas are not the only factory turning out terrorists. Militant recruits, including potential suicide bombers, come mostly from among the poor and unemployed, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as from the ranks of the middle class, as we've seen even in Europe and Canada.
Madrassas are indeed proliferating in Pakistan, but principally because they offer free education and accommodation in a land of mostly privatized schooling. One child in a madrassa is one less burden on a poor family. For many madrassa owners, the destitute kids make for good fundraising posters.
Pakistan has problems aplenty but it is not a banana republic, as testified by its nuclear program, modern infrastructure and robust economy. Its professional and business class constitutes the biggest talent pool of any Muslim nation, and has long provided skilled immigrants to Canada, the United States and, especially, the oil-rich Middle East.
Pakistan has been ruled for 32 of its 60 years by the military - Gen. Ayub Khan (1958-69), Gen. Yahya Khan (1969-71), Gen. Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Gen. Pervez Musharraf (since 1999). All were backed by the U.S., the first three during the Cold War as a counterweight to the pro-Soviet India.
Zia helped overturn the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by incubating jihad culture in Pakistan, with American money and arms. Ronald Reagan dubbed "the mujahideen freedom fighters" as the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers.
Jihad is good when it suits the U.S., bad when it doesn't.
By the time Musharraf took over, Washington was wooing India, and was about to dump him when 9/11 let him get back into the good graces of the United States.
Relations got strained only when the NATO effort floundered in southern Afghanistan. He was blamed for not doing enough to deprive the Taliban of bases in Pakistan. But the critics never said what he should have done beyond what he already had, committing 80,000 troops, double that of the entire NATO contingent, and losing 800 soldiers in the process.
It is said in North America that the solution to Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. The reverse is truer, Musharraf or no Musharraf.
Benazir Bhutto, who talks more to Western reporters than to Pakistanis, "has had an astonishingly smooth ride" from the media, despite her deeply flawed record, writes William Dalrymple, author the Last Mughal and an astute observer of South Asia.
"She caters to the clichÃƒ© of a good Muslim. She speaks English fluently. She went to a convent run by Irish nuns and rounded off her education at Oxford and Harvard. She isn't a religious fundamentalist, she doesn't have a beard and she doesn't organize rallies where everyone shouts `Death to America.'"
Her two stints as prime minister were disastrous, marked by corruption as well as widespread human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings.
It was also during her tenure that the military created the Taliban, to let Pakistan control Afghanistan.
Yet she has returned from exile armed with a deal with Washington to become prime minister under President Musharraf.
Pakistanis have always felt that their country is run by remote control from Washington. In the past this was done with a wink and a nod; this time it is being done out in the open. This can only add to the anti-Americanism and further complicate the war on terror.
It is an irony of Pakistan that its dictators, unlike its elected leaders, have been personally financially honest and, for the most part, have provided stable government.
Musharraf, for all his faults, initiated two extraordinary democratic reforms: empowering women by reserving a third of the seats in municipal councils and 17 per cent in federal and provincial assemblies, and allowing the rise of a free, unfettered media (which he has just suspended). He also let the national assembly finish its entire five-year term, a record in Pakistan.
Yet, like his three military predecessors, he has overstayed his welcome by developing a cult of indispensability around himself.
The larger question is: Why has democracy floundered in Pakistan but flowered in India?
The British, favouring India, had left Pakistan with an empty treasury and no infrastructure. That made Pakistan that much more susceptible to American development and military aid in the 1950s.
Whereas India abolished the feudal system, Pakistan retained it, allowing the landed gentry to team up with the military and the bureaucratic elite to take turns ruling the state.
Bhutto is a child of a feudal family. If she were to become prime minister under Musharraf, it would be the first time that feudalism and military dictatorship came together so openly - under American tutelage.
The way to open up space for secular democracy is to empower the silent majority, especially the middle and entrepreneurial class.
The way to limit the space for religious obscurantist, and thus jihadism, is to increase modern education and alleviate poverty and underdevelopment. Yet only 10 per cent of the $10 billion given Musharraf was designated for that, the rest going to the military - about the same percentage as applied to the $22 billion spent in Afghanistan and the $500 billion in Iraq, so far.
The war on terror continues, as do America's unholy alliances. Haroon Siddiqui is a columnist for The Toronto Star.
© 2007 The Toronto Star