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A region unravels Risk grows in Pakistan, Afghanistan as leaders take desperate steps

Things are not going well in the 'stans.

In Pakistan, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has decided to hold parliamentary elections in early January after all, despite the state of emergency he declared Nov. 3. But it is hard to see just how democratic any elections can be when independent media are silenced, the judiciary is shut down, public meetings have been banned and the leader of the opposition sometimes can't leave her house.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai is reportedly offering a truce, even posts in the cabinet, to any Taliban leader who is as sick of the endless war as he is. It seems a desperate reach for peace but, given that the United States largely abandoned his sad land long ago in favor of the optional war in Iraq, he may have little choice.

One thing that no one in Washington has been able to explain is how any of this makes the world a safer place.

The official reason for Musharraf's crackdown in Pakistan is that Islamic extremists -- the Taliban and al-Qaida elements that have basically ruled the Afghan/Pakistan border areas since 9/1 1 -- have to be stopped. But with domestic and international outrage growing against Musharraf, and even the loyalty of his own army in question, it seems that all the declaration of martial law has done is to invigorate the extremists and gain them sympathy, if not outright support, throughout the region.

Musharraf certainly has done Karzai no favors. The Afghan leader last week denied rumors that he was ready to make a deal with the ousted leaders of the old Taliban regime. But the Taliban is not a monolithic organization and, together with the many ethnic and tribal warlords and alliances that come and go, Karzai may see some kind of deal with just the right assemblage of former rivals as his only reasonable hope for peace. Certainly the devoted but small American and NATO forces in his country haven't created the kind of security that would encourage him to ignore the Taliban and carve a new, more Western-friendly regime without them.

The whole of this sad picture can be largely laid at the feet of the Bush administration, which squandered its early, and globally popular, victory over the Taliban by leaving Afghanistan in a state of disarray so that it could move on to Iraq and create even greater chaos. Our government's apparent belief that it could win wars and then do relatively little to secure the peace in such volatile regions is a delusion that needs to be clearly and categorically rejected by each and every one of the people who now hope to become president.

What is truly frightening, though, is the fact that it is hard to see how any of them, entering office some 14 months from now, can get us out of this mess.

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