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Another Pass for Pakistan

Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A28

TODAY PAKISTANI President Pervez Musharraf will break yet another of the promises he has made to his country and the world since seizing power in a 1999 military coup against an elected government. A year ago, in exchange for parliamentary support for a package of laws increasing his powers as president, extending his rule through 2007 and curtailing elected government through the creation of a military-dominated national security council, Mr. Musharraf pledged to resign from his post as Army chief of staff by Dec. 31. It was to be a modest step toward returning Pakistan to civilian rule, if not democracy. Yet now Mr. Musharraf is reneging, claiming that his continuance in uniform is essential to the country's "unity." He is wrong, of course -- but sadly, his chief ally, President Bush, is unwilling to hold him accountable.

Mr. Bush continues to lionize Mr. Musharraf as a crucial ally in the war on terrorism and as someone who is leading Pakistan toward democracy. In fact the general has become a classic example of the sort of U.S. ally Mr. Bush has repeatedly vowed to repudiate: an authoritarian ruler who offers tactical security cooperation with the United States while storing up trouble for the future. Like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or the former shah of Iran, Mr. Mubarak is perceived by his people to draw much of his power from Washington, which this year is supplying Pakistan with $700 million in aid and is discussing a billion-dollar package of arms sales. Many Pakistanis consequently blame the United States for their president's latest authoritarian step, which Mr. Bush failed even to mention during Mr. Musharraf's visit to the White House earlier this month. Pakistan's militantly anti-American Islamic parties grow steadily stronger, while the secular, pro-Western political parties that governed the country during the 1990s weaken.

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What does the United States gain from this policy? Not the capture of Osama bin Laden or his top deputies: They remain at large, almost certainly on Pakistani territory. Mr. Musharraf's army has carried out offensives against al Qaeda's low-ranking cannon fodder but shies away from attacking Taliban leaders operating against Afghanistan's new government. Nor is there security against further nuclear proliferation: Mr. Musharraf still refuses to allow U.S. or other foreign investigators to question A.Q. Khan, the director of the largest smuggling network for nuclear weapons material and know-how in history. Consequently, those investigators still don't know which countries, other than Libya, obtained contraband Pakistani bomb designs or equipment, or even whether the network has been entirely shut down.

As Mr. Musharraf never fails to point out, there are many dangerous alternatives to his rule in Pakistan. But it should be possible for the Bush administration to reconcile the short-term U.S. interest in working with a de facto military dictator with its long-term interest in democracy. Unlike Iraq, Pakistan already has well-developed secular political parties and a civil society of independent newspapers, human rights groups and other organizations. It has elected its governments in the past. Mr. Musharraf has promised to return Pakistan to civilian democratic rule; Mr. Bush need only urge that he fulfill those commitments. That the president does not do so only shows that he continues to prefer expediency to the more difficult pursuit of his own doctrine.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company