High-Maintenance Musharraf!

High-Maintenance Musharraf
Editorial; New York Times, August 11, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped head off what could have been a political cataclysm by calling Gen. Pervez Musharraf at 2 a.m. in Pakistan on Thursday and talking him out of seizing new powers to suspend Parliament, hamstring the courts, curb street demonstrations and guarantee himself a new presidential term. But the crisis may only have been postponed.

Pakistan’s military dictator has worked himself and his friends into a tight corner. Pakistan’s location, adjoining Afghanistan, Iran, India and China, makes it one of America’s most important allies. General Musharraf’s reckless political trajectory is turning him into one of the Bush administration’s most dangerous partners.

More than early-morning crisis management will be needed to keep this very difficult situation from turning drastically worse. After eight years of authoritarianism and broken promises, General Musharraf has forfeited the support he once enjoyed among ordinary Pakistanis, educated professionals and even fellow military officers.

While he regularly pleads that he is too weak to crush the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces that find ready sanctuary inside his country, he has shown no lack of enthusiasm for lashing out at Pakistan’s reawakening civil society. Most Pakistanis now want a return to elected civilian government, even if that means bringing back some of the flawed party leaders the general has tried to banish from political life, like two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

If General Musharraf tries to forcibly cling to power over growing protests, the most likely beneficiaries are militant minorities, from armed Islamist groups to conspiratorial military nationalists. These extremists stand ready to exploit the resulting tensions to their own advantage. Their political representatives have never attracted majorities when Pakistan has held reasonably fair elections. But if they managed to seize power in a political crisis, they would gain control not only of Pakistan’s strategic frontiers, but of its nuclear arsenal and know-how as well.

Telling General Musharraf not to seize still more power is not enough. Washington should tell him to negotiate a rapid return to democracy, before it’s too late.

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