U.S. Hands Tied on Pakistan

"We'd better get out the Rolodex," a senior U.S. official joked grimly on Saturday when he was asked whether the Bush administration needed to start making new friends in Pakistan. After six years of propping up and making excuses for Pervez Musharraf, however, Washington doesn't have many friends left to call on in Pakistan—perhaps the No. 1 generator of anti-U.S. terrorism in the world today. That's the dilemma that democracy crusader George W. Bush faces after Musharraf, one of his firmest allies, took the dictator's path and declared martial law on Saturday. There is perhaps no place on earth that more powerfully validates Bush's idea that democracy can be a cure for terrorism than Pakistan. And there is perhaps no place on earth that so powerfully exposes his occasional hypocrisy in failing to push for that policy.

Asked about Musharraf's decision to declare a state of emergency and cart off the justices of the Pakistan Supreme Court shortly before they were expected to rule that his presidency was illegitimate (he took power in a 1999 coup), U.S. officials did the dance they always perform when it comes to his anti-democratic actions: They disapproved but expressed hope that Musharraf would see the light. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in remarks to reporters on her plane shortly after the state of emergency was declared, refused to divulge details of the conversations U.S. officials had with Musharraf in recent days. But she indicated that the Bush administration had been aware of the possibility he would impose martial law and had warned him that "even if something happens we would expect the democratic elections to take place" that Musharraf had promised by Jan. 15. Rice also generously suggested that Musharraf himself had been one of those responsible for "getting [Pakistan] back onto the democratic path." The dictator himself, in his address to the Pakistani people Saturday, picked up on this theme, declaring that he was disrupting democracy in order to save it. "I say with sorrow that some elements are creating hurdles in the way of democracy," he said, adding that Pakistan was in danger of falling apart because of extremist groups; his emergency order accused the justices of "working at cross purposes with the executive" and "weakening the government's resolve" to fight terrorism.

Yes, Musharraf has been a firm if uneven ally against terrorism. But all of this double talk illustrates the Faustian bargain that the United States has struck with Pakistan in the war on terror. Again and again, the Bush administration has looked the other way as Musharraf has trampled all over democracy in the service of "stability." In the fall of 2002, when Musharraf finally held parliamentary elections three years after his bloodless coup, Islamist fundamentalists won a surprising number of seats. Their victories, especially in border regions like Baluchistan where terror groups still found harbor, were a worrisome setback to the fight against terrorism. U.S. officials swallowed hard but lauded the elections as "fair and square." But the elections were not fair and square. And it was left to an election observer from the European Union, John Cushnahan, to point out that there were "serious flaws" in the elections because Musharraf's government had unfairly directed state resources to his party and created laws intended to prevent exiled former leaders Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto from taking part. Washington was, quite noticeably, silent on this point. Bhutto, the former prime minister, could not even get a hearing at the White House, belying Bush's second-term commitment "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," as the president put it in his second inaugural address.

Lately Musharraf, with his popularity in sharp decline, had begun to court Bhutto politically. He proposed that she return to Pakistan after eight years of enforced exile (thanks to him) to join him in a coalition government. Now Bhutto doesn't know whether she'll be appointed or arrested, Musharraf has completely de-legitimized himself in the eyes of the Pakistani public, and Washington has virtually no friends in a part of the world where Al Qaeda has established a new safe haven. "I agree with [Musharraf] that we are facing a political crisis, but I believe the problem is dictatorship, I don't believe the solution is dictatorship," Bhutto told Sky News. "The extremists need a dictatorship, and dictatorship needs extremists."

Americans have always been uneasy about dancing with dictators. But in the age of terror such a policy can be very costly. Musharraf's method of maintaining his thin legitimacy is an example of just how costly. In order to keep himself in power, Musharraf has cut deals with the Mutahhida Majlis Amal (MMA, or United Action Council), a coalition of Islamic parties, and barred the parties of his main secular political rivals, former prime ministers Bhutto and Sharif. This was an attempt to "create the illusion that radical Islamist groups were gaining power through democratic means, thus minimizing the prospect that the international community—especially the United States while Pakistan offers support in the war against al Qaeda—would press for democratic reform," scholar Husain Haqqani wrote in his recent book, "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military." But because these Islamist groups have continued to grow in power and influence, they may no longer be controllable.

The monster that Musharraf cynically nurtured to keep himself in office is now threatening him personally: Al Qaeda elements that have found increasing support in friendly areas of Pakistan controlled by Islamists have tried to assassinate him twice. Some U.S. officials now fear that that this nuclear-armed nation is teetering on the verge of chaos, and the result could be every American's worst nightmare: that nuclear material or knowhow, or God forbid, a bomb, falls into the hands of terrorists. "If you were to look around the world for where Al Qaeda is going to find its bomb, it's right in their backyard," says Bruce Riedel, the former senior director for South Asia on the National Security Council. As U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) put it on Saturday: "General Musharraf's decision to declare a state of emergency and suspend the constitution underscores the need for the United States to move from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy. President Bush should personally make clear to General Musharraf the risks to U.S.-Pakistani relations if he does not restore the constitution, permit free and fair elections and take off his uniform as promised. Then, we have to build a new relationship with the Pakistani people." Indeed, it may be time to make new friends in Pakistan—if we can find them.