The General's Best Chance

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

FOR EIGHT years, Pakistan's autocratic leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has refused to come to terms with the country's secular political parties, preferring to perpetuate his regime through deals with Muslim extremists, rigged elections, rewrites of the constitution and simple repression.

Now Mr. Musharraf finds himself in the awkward position of negotiating with those parties to prevent his government from unraveling. It's hard to wish him luck -- yet a compromise between Mr. Musharraf and former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif may offer the best chance to check extremism and mounting instability in that nuclear-armed country.

None of the parties engaged in ongoing talks in London -- widely reported by the Pakistani media -- are particularly attractive. While professing commitment to the war against terrorism, Mr. Musharraf has allowed al-Qaeda and the Taliban to reestablish themselves in Pakistan's unruly tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. He has been an unfaithful and at times meretricious ally of the United States, even while accepting some $10 billion in American aid. Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif both are two-time failures as Pakistani prime minister. Both have been credibly accused of breathtaking acts of corruption; both have been unscrupulous in pursuing their personal ambitions.

The three Pakistani leaders nevertheless are committed to a secular state in Pakistan and to cooperation with the United States, in contrast to the extremist Muslim parties rapidly gaining influence in the country, and possibly within the army. All three leaders claim to be committed to Western-style democracy and freedoms, including rights for women. Collectively, they have an opportunity to steer Pakistan back toward democracy, to marginalize the extremists and to intensify the battle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Though their mutual loathing would seem to rule out any bargain, they need each other. Mr. Musharraf's plan to arrange his reelection as president next month without stepping down as chief of the army staff faces mounting legal and political obstacles. To its credit, the Bush administration stopped him from declaring a state of emergency or martial law last month. The general will probably need the help of Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif -- whose parties are still the most popular in national polls -- if he is to remain president, even if he gives up his military post. They in turn want constitutional and legal changes that would allow them to serve again as prime minister and prevent their prosecution when they return home from exile.

At best, Mr. Musharraf would step down as army commander, oversee constitutional reforms and a free and fair election for parliament, and then present himself to the national and provincial legislatures, which choose the president, as a candidate. If he were elected, he would gain some of the legitimacy he now lacks. If not, he could retire with his reputation -- and Pakistan's stability -- in better shape than it is now. Either way, it is time for the general to make a deal.

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