A Message for Gen. Musharraf

Thursday, March 2, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan yesterday to show support for its emerging democracy, which he rightly said is being watched by "people all over the world." Then he flew to India, where his visit centers on the rapidly growing common interests the United States shares with the world's largest democracy. It's hard to ignore the contrast with the third stop on Mr. Bush's foreign tour this week: Pakistan, where Pervez Musharraf, a general who seized power in a 1999 coup against an elected government, still monopolizes power. But Mr. Bush is doing his best. "I believe he's committed to free and open elections," he said last week of his Pakistani ally.

If Mr. Bush really believes that, he's a lot more credulous than most Pakistanis are;

they long ago stopped believing the public pledges of a leader who more than once has broken them. Gen. Musharraf has been promising to restore democracy since his coup, yet throughout his years in power he has sought to suppress Pakistan's secular democratic parties while striking deals with Muslim extremists. In one such bargain he promised to step down as Army chief of staff by the end of 2004, in exchange for an extension of his term until 2007 and new constitutional powers for the president and the army. He reneged.

Now Gen. Musharraf's surrogates have begun suggesting that he will postpone the elections promised for next year and have the parliament -- which was chosen in a highly irregular 2002 election -- vote to "reelect" him. In short, Gen. Musharraf clearly hopes to prolong his military regime indefinitely, while continuing to enjoy heavy political and economic support from an American president who has dedicated his administration to advancing democracy in the Muslim world.

To his credit Mr. Bush appears to understand the general's game and is making at least a modest effort to head it off. In a speech to the Asia Society before his tour, Mr. Bush said that "the United States and Pakistan understand that in the long run the only way to defeat the terrorists is through democracy," that "Pakistan still has a distance to travel on the road to democracy" and that "the United States and Pakistan both want the elections scheduled for next year to be successful." Mr. Bush should underline that message when he is in Islamabad this week. He should also make clear to Gen. Musharraf that his alliance with the White House and the Pentagon cannot preclude American support for building democratic institutions in his country. That must include efforts to help secular Pakistani political parties get back on their feet and prepare for a genuinely free election in 2007.

Despite Gen. Musharraf's many promises, Pakistan remains a deeply unstable country where the threat of Islamic extremism is great and growing. Though the general may be a tactical ally of the United States against that threat, his refusal to restore democracy in his country has only made it worse. It's time for the United States to stop banking on this unreliable general and start planning for the democratic government that should succeed him.

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