The General Retires

Thursday, November 29, 2007

PAKISTAN took an important step toward ending its political crisis when President Pervez Musharraf stepped down yesterday as commander of the army -- the position from which he staged his 1999 coup against a democratically elected government and from which he imposed de facto martial law this month. The army is Pakistan's most powerful institution, and without his uniform, Mr. Musharraf is unlikely to remain an autocratic ruler for long. Yet he clings to office: He plans to be sworn in today for a new term as president, wielding emergency powers under a suspended constitution. Until Mr. Musharraf can be induced to give up those powers, and the president's office, the forces that should be fighting Islamic extremism in Pakistan instead will continue to war with each other.

Mr. Musharraf won the support of President Bush six years ago by portraying himself as a leader capable of uniting Pakistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban while building secular democratic institutions. Now he has become the primary obstacle to both causes. His crackdown on the country's judiciary, news media, human rights advocates and centrist political parties has turned them, along with most of Pakistan's population, irrevocably against him. Mr. Musharraf's assumption of a new term as president is a gross insult to those groups and institutions, because he acquired the mandate by staging an improper election, then fired the judges of the Supreme Court before they could rule on its legality.

Mr. Musharraf has retreated from his power grab only because of heavy pressure from Pakistan's closest allies. He tearfully retired from the army after being pressed to do so by Mr. Bush. He allowed the leaders of the two largest political parties to return home from exile at the urging of the United States, which backed Benazir Bhutto, and Saudi Arabia, which championed Nawaz Sharif. To his credit, Mr. Bush has also called on Mr. Musharraf to lift martial law and allow the parliamentary elections scheduled for January to be free and fair. Free elections would, at least, force Mr. Musharraf to share power with a civilian prime minister as well as with the new army commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.

The Bush administration nevertheless retains a residual and counterproductive attachment to the fading strongman. Last week, Mr. Bush told a reporter, bizarrely, that Mr. Musharraf "hasn't crossed the line" and "truly is somebody who believes in democracy." In fact, this month's coup decisively demonstrated Mr. Musharraf's contempt for democracy and pushed him across a line he cannot erase. Even if he restores the constitution, Mr. Musharraf will not restore to the bench the judges he has fired -- and a professional and independent judiciary is essential to a democratizing Pakistan. Even if he allows free elections, Mr. Musharraf will not cooperate with civilian leaders he despises or be cured of his autocratic impulses. If Pakistan's moderate center is to have a chance of defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Mr. Musharraf will have to retire from public life. The sooner he and Pakistan's army get that message from Washington, the quicker the current crisis can be ended.

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