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Another Bet on the General

Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page A20

PAKISTAN'S MILITARY ruler, Pervez Musharraf, once again can boast of the lucre brought to his regime by his alliance with the United States. Breaking an embargo established under his father's administration 15 years ago, President Bush has agreed to sell the Pakistani military dozens of high-performance F-16s, a warplane capable of delivering Pakistan's nuclear weapons that is coveted by its generals so as to increase the menace to neighboring, democratic India. Mr. Bush's decision will bolster Mr. Musharraf's support among the only political constituency that matters to him, his nationalist generals. It will also reinforce the political dominance of that faction in Pakistan, a desperately poor country with a history of squandering its resources on its army while underfunding such social services as secular schools.

The F-16 deal adds to a long list of concessions Mr. Musharraf has enjoyed since Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration had written off Pakistani debt, promised $3 billion in aid over five years and sold another $1 billion in weapons to the military even before agreeing to sell these planes. It has stood by indulgently while the general pardoned the perpetrator of the worst crimes in the history of nuclear proliferation, A.Q. Khan, whose sales of nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, Libya and possibly others could not have occurred without the knowledge of military commanders. Mr. Bush has accepted Mr. Musharraf's refusal to allow U.S. or other international investigators to interview Mr. Khan; his administration has also failed to react to growing evidence that Pakistan continues to seek advanced nuclear weapons technologies by illegal means, including in the United States.

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What has the United States gained from this relationship? Well, Mr. Musharraf is not himself an Islamic extremist, though he has done much to bolster militant Islamic political parties at the expense of the secular democrats he overthrew in his 1999 coup. He has arrested or killed a few hundred al Qaeda militants, though not Osama bin Laden or his senior deputies, who almost certainly reside in Pakistan. He has supported U.S. operations in Afghanistan, though he has flinched from a concerted campaign against the Taliban forces also based in his country. And he has made -- and broken -- numerous promises: that he would reform the Islamic schools educating new generations of extremists; that he would dismantle the extremist organizations targeting Indian-controlled Kashmir; that he would give up his position as army commander in chief and return Pakistan to civilian government.

During her recent visit to Pakistan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a first step toward balancing this lopsided partnership, saying publicly that Washington expected Mr. Musharraf to fulfill his commitment to hold democratic elections in 2007. The administration has also rightly made India a more extensive and strategic offer of cooperation, including military sales and nuclear energy. But the Bush administration should work harder to support a democratic alternative in Pakistan, which has a large civil society, independent press and moderate political parties that ought to have better relationships with Washington. Buying the allegiance of a military ruler with weapons sales is easy and may be necessary in the short run, but the Bush administration needs a policy for Pakistan that is designed to outlast Pervez Musharraf.

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