PRESIDENT ZIA'S critics say that his ending of military rule in Pakistan, after 8 1/2 years, is phony. The interesting thing, however, is that they are saying it loudly in the press and at rallies in Pakistan. President Zia remains president and chief of staff of the armed forces; he appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo. But the prime minister rejected the president's caution not to start again down the path of organizing political parties. He seems to be playing down elements of the capricious "Islamization" (under which, for instance, interest on loans was banned but "markup" allowed) that President Zia favored. He is releasing numbers of political prisoners. The sun of democracy may not be beaming down on Pakistan "with full glitter," as the prime minister says, but there do appear to be signs of dawn.

President Zia, ending Pakistan's third extended bout with military law in its 38 years, says he began it with the country foundering in "anarchy, bickering, recrimination and rivalry." He exaggerates, but only the most uncritical partisans of the ousted Bhutto government will say there was no ground for concern. President Zia has done some very harsh things. But he has also displayed a skill at maneuver that shames many civilian politicians, and he has finally shown the wit to start withdrawing the military from its exposed position of political leadership.

It is always a question why a half-turn of this sort happens -- the military plainly remains the power behind the throne -- and why it happens at a particular time. Some suggest President Zia was worried about the military's continued diversion from its professional and institutional role. Others ask if he looked at such veteran military rulers as Iran's deposed shah and Chile's 12-year dictator Pinochet, observed how they had become progressively isolated from their citizens and their country's traditional friends and drew the right conclusions.

It is also possible that he listened to the many Americans, official and unofficial, who have been advising him to move back toward constitutional rule better to assure long-term stability in Pakistan and an improved standing for himself in the United States. Whatever the reason, he is moving Pakistan the right way, and Americans have reason to encourage him to keep going.