GEN. MOHAMMED Zia ul-Haq declared martial law in Pakistan eight years ago and is hesitantly trying to find his way back to a form of governance that is somewhat democratic but lets the military keep ultimate control. If this sounds inconsistent and implausible to Westerners, it is the sort of effort that defines the politics of many Third World countries. In Pakistan these days, the effort is not going so well.

Earlier this year the government carefully staged elections (banning the parties and locking up the politicians), but still the supposedly tame parliament that was elected at once demanded the lifting of martial law. The new prime minister promised, sort of, that it would be done by the end of the year. The leading civilian politician, Benazir Bhutto, 32, daughter of president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whom Gen. Zia deposed and hanged, was planning to return next year to join the new process. A brother's funeral, however, brought her back in August. Almost inevitably the funeral proceedings took on something of a political cast, and the the extremely shrewd Miss Bhutto was promptly put under 90-day house arrest -- thus ensuring a burst of world publicity for her cause.

The military law administration in Pakistan can play extremely rough, but it is not without a capacity for subtlety. That makes it all the more surprising that President Zia is so slow to widen the political arena and allow others more play. It is unnecessary and unbecoming for a country such as Pakistan with a sophisticated political class to be kept in a military straitjacket. The Bhutto-led Pakistan People's Party, formally outlawed but informally quite alive, sees President Zia as the architect of its misfortune; he sees it as the subversive force from which he rescued the nation. The history does not afford easy confidence about their developing relations. Nonetheless, the burden remains on President Zia to manage the process of decompression from military rule.

The American strategic partnership with Pakistan, especially visible in their joint support of the Afghan resistance, tends to keep the American voice low in this matter. But the United States has a substantial enduring interest in having a friendly Pakistan move back toward democratic rule.