Turning Away From Musharraf

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani with President Bush in Egypt in May.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani with President Bush in Egypt in May. (Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Yousaf Raza Gillani, prime minister of Pakistan, will lunch with George W. Bush in the White House on July 28. That will not be merely another of the president's routine meetings with foreign leaders. As Pakistan's democratically elected government and U.S. diplomats understand, the lunch symbolizes a turn away from Washington's attachment to military rule under the discredited Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Bush could be the last to appreciate the symbolism. On May 30, he stunned Pakistani political circles with a personal telephone call to Musharraf advocating "a continuing role" for him as president of Pakistan. Musharraf, whose 9 percent approval rating ranks even below Bush's, had been elected president by a lame-duck Parliament just before its members were defeated in elections Feb. 18. When Bush phoned, boosting Musharraf, members of the new government were demanding the general's impeachment or resignation.

Clinging to a rejected strongman typifies a persistent practice in U.S. foreign policy. Bush has stuck with Musharraf despite the Pakistani military's failure under his command to vigorously combat Islamist terrorists on the Afghanistan frontier. However reluctantly, Bush is turning to a new government, which last week launched a military attack in the Khyber tribal region; this is to be followed by more such thrusts in coordination with U.S.-Afghan forces on the other side of the border.

This was the military plan sketched for me in New York a year ago by Benazir Bhutto as she prepared to return to Pakistan after eight years in exile following her second ouster as prime minister in a military coup. The State Department brokered a shaky power-sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto, but Musharraf forced his sham election as president and Bhutto was assassinated soon after her return.

Fearing instability, the Bush administration publicly avowed Musharraf's continuing importance to Pakistan despite his crushing electoral defeat. Bush's May 30 call to Musharraf was a step too far, causing shrugs of disbelief even at the State Department. At issue is overall U.S. global strategy. Ousting Musharraf, the White House has feared, would signal that Bush would next abandon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.

The White House invitation to Bhutto's political ally Gillani, therefore, represents a new mind-set. Nevertheless, Musharraf's hanging on as president represents a useless anachronism. The Nation, a conservative Pakistani newspaper, asserted last Thursday: "The country badly needs a head of state, who devotes full time to the improvement of the situation in [the federally administered tribal areas] instead of spending time in palace intrigues." The News, a liberal newspaper, on the same day derided Musharraf's self-styled "enlightened moderation," asserting that "even as the U.S. declared him a key ally against terror, militancy grew everywhere."

That same News editorial complained that "no one is ready to defend" the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan "against a possible onslaught by the militant militias that stand ranged all around it." But the joint U.S.-Pakistan military attack last week in the Khyber tribal area saved the historic town. That contradicted claims by Musharraf, his generals and friends in the U.S. government that an elected civilian regime would slack off in the war against terror.

On the contrary, as Bhutto predicted to me last year, the civilian government is focusing the country's army against Islamist militants instead of archrival India. Only recently, when an unmanned Predator aircraft had a terrorist target in its sights, the Pakistani military refused to pull the trigger. Now, more raids in lawless tribal regions are planned. While the country's generals previously concentrated U.S. aid on conventional armaments to prepare for war with India, money from Washington now flows into counter-guerrilla activities.

Pakistani opposition to the army's rule was not just a utopian desire for democracy or even fear that the country would become a large, nuclear-armed replica of Myanmar, ruled by a hereditary caste of ignorant, intransigent officers. The real problem with the military dictatorship, obsessed over the Indian menace, was its lack of interest in George W. Bush's war against terrorism. When he sits down to lunch with Prime Minister Gillani on July 28, the president should remember that his friend Musharraf cut a deal in 2006 with tribal leaders providing sanctuary for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company