WASHINGTON, March 21 (UPI) -- Pakistan appears to be heading toward another crisis. Terrorists are operating freely across the country, hitting their targets even in the country's most protected diplomatic enclave. And political and religious parties are already negotiating a deal to launch a joint campaign to force President Pervez Musharraf to step down.
Such crises are not new for Pakistan. At least once every 10 years the country's political forces get together to launch a violent protest against whoever is in power, forcing him or her to step down. If it is a civilian government, the protest brings the army -- and if it is the army, the campaign leads to the temporary restoration of democracy.
Once the government is toppled, life returns to normal and the protesters crawl back to wherever they came from to wait for yet another opportunity to protest.
But this time it is different. This time political violence is threatening to break out at the same time that terrorist attacks that have already strained the country's security. Besides, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, the world no longer has stomach for more violence and chaos.
In the current situation, political unrest may force the international community to rethink its policies toward Pakistan. From a key ally in the fight against terrorism, Pakistan can quickly slip into the category of the nations that cannot be trusted.
Lack of security and political instability can undermine Pakistan's efforts to rebuild its fragile economy, said Furrukh Saleem, a political columnist for the Pakistani newspaper The News.
Reeling under a whooping $38 billion foreign debt, the Pakistani economy was on the verge of collapse when the terrorists struck New York and Washington. To prevent Pakistan from turning into a failed state and a terrorist sanctuary like Afghanistan, the United States, other Western powers and international financial organizations are now helping Islamabad to jump-start its economy.
And the economy is already showing signs of improvement.
Since Sept. 11, Pakistan has received $800 million dollars of cash grants while an additional $800 million were sent by Pakistani expatriates.
International oil prices have gone down, allowing Pakistan to save half a billion dollars. The so-called Paris club of donor nations has rescheduled Pakistan's entire debt, causing an increase of three to $4 billion in the net present value of Pakistan's accumulated debt stock.
The Pakistani treasury now holds more than $5 billion, covering some 18 weeks of imports. The State Bank of Pakistan has curtailed its dollar purchase from the curb market. And for the first time over the past two decades, the Pakistani rupee has actually gained against the dollar.
The balance of trade has improved with the final deficit at less than a billion dollars, compared to more than $3 billion in the mid-1990s and more than $2 billion in the late-1990s.
But Saleem warns that all this could change rapidly if Pakistan experiences political turmoil, because "foreign investors are not going to invest in an instable country."
To prevent a future political crisis, economist Shahid Javed Burki, the World Bank's vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean who also served as economic adviser to the Pakistani government in 1996-97, has suggested a complete revamping of Pakistan's political structure.
In a joint study financed by the British government's Department of International Development, Burki and Pakistani academic, Prof. Mohammed Waseem, suggested changing Pakistan's Westminster parliamentary system into "some other form of governance (which) would work better for a country in Pakistan's situation."
It is a proposal that may draw the attention of Pakistan's military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who also advocates changing the present system "with something suitable for Pakistan's political and economic needs."
As a first step toward this goal, the Pakistani government hinted Wednesday that it might hold a referendum on the proposed political changes. The referendum would focus mainly on getting approval for a five-year term for Musharraf. He needs another term so that he could "bring about the necessary changes and ensure that they are implemented," said a spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League party after a meeting with Musharraf in Islamabad.
Musharraf has already announced his plan for holding the general elections in October but fears the elected government can simply throw away his changes if he is not present to ensure their implementation.
But many in Pakistan say that Musharraf does not have the legal authority to make these changes.
"It will not be legally valid even if Musharraf gets himself another five-year term. He should hold the elections and let the future parliament decide what it wants," said Pakistan's former Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, who was chased out of office by armed supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for hearing a contempt case against him.
"The government has already forced former Prime Ministers Sharif and Benazir Bhutto (its main political rivals) to live in exile. This shows what sort of elections they want to hold," said Shah.
The country's main political and religious parties uphold Shah's argument; they are already discussing a plan to launch a grand political alliance and force the army to relinquish power.
"Yes, we can form an alliance with religious parties and with (the rival) Muslim League for the sake of democracy. It will not be unprecedented. Such alliances against military rulers have been formed in the past as well," said Bhutto's political adviser Naheed Khan.
In the past, such alliances have always succeeded in forcing the government of the day to step down. Will they succeed against Musharraf as well? Only the time will tell.
But a more immediate threat to the military government comes from the terrorists who have become increasingly active during the past few weeks. Pakistani and American terrorism experts believe that many of these terrorists are linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network and Afghanistan's former Taliban regime.
Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in November, hundreds of such extremists entered Pakistan. Some settled in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan while others moved to the cities, hiding with their local sympathizers.
During the last four months, they have had ample time to regroup and reorganize. As attacks on Pakistani and Western targets inside Pakistan indicate, they move freely across the country and hit when they want.
Pakistani intelligence agencies say that al Qaida and Taliban fugitives are working closely with half a dozen local terrorist groups Musharraf disbanded in January. Since some of these groups trained their men in Afghanistan, they already had links with both al Qaida and the Taliban.
U.S. intelligence agents in Pakistan say that some former members of the country's main intelligence agency -- Inter Services Intelligence -- may also be helping the extremists, a charge Pakistan strongly denies.
U.S. authorities also have pointed out that Pakistan's outdated security mechanism is not suitable to deal with the terrorist threat and have urged Musharraf to revamp the entire system.
Upset with both the government and Pakistan's educated elite for supporting Musharraf, the terrorists are carrying out targeted killings. Their most obvious targets are the Americans and their Western allies. So far they have killed three Americans, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and a U.S. Embassy employee and her teenage daughter.
Americans, however, are a difficult target. First of all, there are not many of them in Pakistan, and those who still live there avoid exposing themselves to danger.
More vulnerable is the Pakistani elite, which has annoyed the extremists by supporting Musharraf's reforms aimed at promoting secular values in Pakistan. According to the local police, terrorists have killed more than 70 doctors since Sept. 11, shooting them either at their clinics or outside their homes. They also have killed dozens of businessmen, lawyers, teachers, bankers and other professionals.
"They are being punished for having Western views and for supporting Musharraf's anti-terrorist campaign," says Murtaza Haider, a Pakistani professor at Canada's McGill University, who has lost several friends and relatives in these attacks.
Political analysts in Pakistan say that if Musharraf sincerely wishes to end religious and political violence and bring peace and prosperity to his country, he will have to deal with both terrorism and political instability.