Leaving Musharraf Behind
Editorial, New York Times, March 15, 2008
Parliamentary elections in Pakistan last month delivered a verdict that was just clean enough to be credible — a stern rout of President Pervez Musharraf’s party. Now, rivals Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the leading opposition politicians, have further defied expectations by joining forces in a deal that could force Mr. Musharraf from office.
Assuming the agreement holds, the new Parliament, set to convene on Monday, would reinstate the Supreme Court judges whom Mr. Musharraf fired last year in a desperate bid to hold on to power. Once reinstated, the Supreme Court is likely to do exactly what Mr. Musharraf feared: invalidate his re-election. Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif also agreed to pass legislation stripping the former army chief of the power to dissolve Parliament and appoint military leaders.
As a monthlong surge in suicide bombings attests, this is a dangerous time for Pakistan, which has both nuclear arms and a far too cozy relationship with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. If Mr. Musharraf is ousted as a result of Pakistan’s democratic processes, that is Pakistan’s decision. The United States should not interfere.
The Bush administration stubbornly supported Mr. Musharraf as he ran roughshod over the Constitution and Pakistan’s people. The administration has promised to work with whatever government emerges, but it has refused to take a position on reinstating the judges and still seems to be betting that Mr. Musharraf will survive.
That may happen, but it must not stop Washington from supporting Mr. Zardari, Mr. Sharif and other secular moderate leaders who say they will want real constitutional democracy and the rule of law. President Bush can prove his commitment to democracy — and real stability — in Pakistan by vastly increasing nonmilitary aid for projects that would strengthen Pakistan’s battered institutions and improve the daily lives of Pakistanis.
Senator Joseph Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed tripling nonmilitary aid to $1.5 billion annually for schools, roads and clinics and providing an annual $1 billion “democracy” dividend — as reward and encouragement for Pakistan’s new government to stay on a democratic path. That is a good starting point.
Extremists will capitalize on any sign of weakness, and Mr. Musharraf and his rivals must make the political transition as free of conflict as possible. The army that helped put Mr. Musharraf in power — and stayed out of last month’s elections — must fully divorce itself from politics. Instead, it should focus on retooling its skills to confront Al Qaeda, the Taliban and homegrown insurgencies — all are increasingly powerful. The intelligence services must end their double-game with the militants.
What happens in Pakistan directly affects Afghanistan. The two share a lawless border; neither can withstand much more upheaval.
Pakistan’s new civilian leaders are undeniably flawed — both Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif are seriously tainted by corruption. But they deserve Washington’s support as they try to set their country on a new course. They do not have a lot of time to get it right. Every suicide bombing is a reminder of the extremists’ strength and how determined they are to see democracy fail.