Leading article: A need to tread carefully

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The President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, finds himself under an unprecedented degree of scrutiny. He stands accused by the President of neighbouring Afghanistan of turning a blind eye while his security services aid the Taliban, and of ignoring the fact that many Pakistani clerics preach violent extremism. Similar charges are contained in a leaked report prepared for our own Ministry of Defence. There are also growing suspicions in the West that the locations of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qai'da leaders are being kept secret by the Pakistani authorities. Some are beginning to argue that, far from being a key ally of the West in the Muslim world, Pakistan is actually the fountainhead of Islamist extremism.

The world needs to tread very carefully where Pakistan and its embattled leader are concerned. The situation with regard to terrorism is by no means black and white. We should remember that some senior figures within al-Qa'ida, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were captured by the Pakistani security forces and handed over to the US. The charges of bad faith are by no means proven.

Of course, in an ideal world, President Musharraf would curb the excesses of the madrasas. And on a broader level, he would return Pakistan to full democratic rule without delay. But we have to be mindful of what would happen if all of this came to pass in the present radicalised global circumstances. It could quite plausibly result in an extremist Islamist regime taking power - and one armed with nuclear weapons. That is a chilling prospect.

Yet we must also be wary of going too far down the road of realpolitik. We have seen the dangers of supporting local "strong men" in the Muslim world who lack democratic legitimacy. Bottling up dissident forces and denying democracy does not deliver any real long-term stability. The West must be both practical and idealistic in its relationship with Pakistan. We must accept the sensitive and complex reality but also push for liberalisation and democracy where it is feasible.

Bill Clinton's speech at the Labour Party conference was instructive. The former US president regretted that while he was in office so much aid to Pakistan had been in the form of military hardware. He should, he argued, have focused on eradicating school fees. That would have stopped poorer parents sending their children to free religious madrasahs for their education, where many are radicalised. According to President Clinton: "It's much cheaper to help the economy in a poor country than to fight a war." The tragedy is that such a subtle approach is apparently anathema to the architects of the present calamitous "war on terror".