The General Under Siege

Monday, July 9, 2007

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF'S misrule of Pakistan during the past eight years is finally catching up with him. Yesterday the general's army was engaged in the bloody siege of a mosque in Islamabad where pro-Taliban Islamic extremists have been defying his government's authority; more than 20 people already have died in the siege. The rebellion began in January, but Mr. Musharraf refrained from taking on the militants until clashes erupted around the mosque last week -- a strategy symptomatic of his tolerance for the growth of Islamic extremist movements.

The general has had far less patience for the secular political parties and civil society groups that could be his allies in fighting the Talibanization of Pakistan. He has refused to allow two former civilian prime ministers to return from exile; he has bullied the media, rigged elections and tried to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Consequently, the pressure the president now faces from Islamists is matched by a nationwide campaign against him by Pakistan's moderate center. Last Monday a Supreme Court judge rejected the evidence that Mr. Musharraf presented against the dismissed jurist, who had been investigating political disappearances and seemed likely to resist the general's attempt to manipulate the presidential election this year.

With that election approaching, Mr. Musharraf is increasingly dependent on two sources of support. One is the Pakistani army, where Islamic influence also seems to be encroaching; the other is the Bush administration, which has myopically stuck to its unqualified support for this autocratic but ineffective ruler despite his slipping support and inability to deliver on matters vital to U.S. security, such as breaking up Taliban and al-Qaeda bases near the Afghan border. The weaker Mr. Musharraf grows, the more wedded the State Department becomes to him. In a visit to Islamabad last month, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte shrugged off reports that the strongman would once again refuse to step down as army commander this year while remaining president. "I think that is something General Musharraf himself will want to decide," Mr. Negroponte said, conspicuously placing the general above Pakistan's constitution.

It's easy to see how fear of instability in a Muslim state with nuclear weapons could prompt this sort of appeasement. But U.S. policy is dangerously shortsighted. Mr. Musharraf is unlikely to survive for long -- and the risk of extremism in Pakistan will grow steadily worse -- unless he stops suppressing the country's mainstream political parties, allows the growth of a robust civil society and joins with it in an uncompromising campaign against Islamic extremists. Rather than doubling and redoubling its bet on one very shaky general, the Bush administration should insist that he begin to build a secular and democratic regime that can survive him.

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