The most important elections this year next to our own took place in Pakistan on Monday. The news is good.
The ballot in Pakistan - current training ground for al-Qaida, the Taliban and other jihadis - was meant to choose a new parliament. The results were a smashing repudiation of the political party of President Pervez Musharraf. He will keep his post for the present, but two opposition parties cleaned up the votes. They may - if they form a coalition, as they announced they will - be able to oust him.
Of course, Musharraf is America's ally, much touted by President Bush. But Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., an election observer, was right to say the vote offers a chance to reshape U.S. policy from one "focused on a personality (Musharraf) to one based on an entire people."
If the White House wants to counter the global jihadi threat, it's time to start formulating a post-Musharraf policy. Now.
The White House relied on Musharraf to stop the jihadis, tolerating his crackdown on Pakistan's Supreme Court and years of military rule. But, on his watch, jihadi influence spread throughout Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country.
While talking the anti-terrorist talk, Musharraf always seemed ambivalent about walking the walk. Elements of Pakistani intelligence had long supported the Taliban and other jihadis as a hedge against India.
On Musharraf's watch, suicide bombs went off in Pakistani cities, militants cut off heads, and terrorists assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Jihadis established bases where they trained terrorists for operations in Europe.
The election results open the possibility that Pakistan - with more effective cooperation from Washington - can finally mount an effective campaign against the terrorists. This prospect holds true, despite the fact it's still unclear who will become prime minister.
The reasons for my optimism are twofold. First, these elections were unexpectedly fair due to the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who recently succeeded Musharraf. "Something very good has happened," I was told by phone from Karachi, by Ikram Sehgal, a prominent Pakistani businessman and defense analyst. "We had free and fair elections because the army distanced itself (from the elections)."
Kayani had already signaled he wanted the army out of politics; he wasn't interested in helping rig the elections, as was done blatantly in 2002. The general appears determined to focus on providing necessary security for Pakistan.
The second reason for optimism is that, in fair elections, Islamist parties have been soundly massively defeated - both in national and provincial elections.
Key is the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), that shares a border with Afghanistan and abuts the tribal areas where al-Qaida and the Taliban are based. In 2002, an Islamist political coalition known as the MMA took control of the NWFP; the coalition looked the other way while jihadis "Taliban-ized" the province.
Militants terrorized the provincial capital, Peshawar, with suicide bombings, and cut off heads and closed girls schools in peaceful areas like Swat. Until recently, Musharraf did little, perhaps because his party sometimes needed the support of the MMA.
But this time the MMA was trounced, and elections in the province were won by a secular party, the ANP, that denounces the jihadis. "This is a repudiation of the jihadi element," says Sehgal. "It will lead to closer cooperation with the United States."
Sehgal also expects much better Pakistan-Afghan cooperation on policing their joint border. The ANP has good relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who accuses Musharraf of failing to stop the Taliban from launching attacks on his country from within Pakistan.
Why did the voters boot the mullahs from governing this troubled province?
Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the NWFP, gives credit to Kayani. Ballot rigging in 2002 gave the religious parties a majority in many constituencies even though, historically, they drew only 2 percent to 5 percent of the votes. "That (manipulation) was why during the last five years NWFP went down the drain in terms of the insurgency," Aziz says.
He cautions that the new provincial government in NWFP will now "require all sorts of assistance from those who are against jihadist violence." This is where the need for a smarter American policy kicks in.
Musharraf is a lame duck. U.S. officials must focus on helping Pakistan's army chief, the new leaders in NWFP, and the new prime minister with military and development aid. The emphasis should be on helping those who understand Pakistan's needs and are ready to confront the jihadis.
"The moderate majority has regained its voice (in Pakistan)," says Biden. This opportunity must be seized.