Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule Saturday, declaring that inaction would be suicidal for the country. However, his contravention and suspension of the country's constitution is itself political suicide. Mr. Musharraf's declaration of war against the judiciary, media and political opposition will redirect public fury toward him and away from the terrorists wreaking havoc across Pakistan, potentially precipitating widespread chaos.
The wave of militancy spreading from Pakistan's hinterland near Afghanistan into its major cities is as deadly as it is unpopular. An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis oppose terrorism and seek the rule of law. Indeed, the country's most popular institutions are the army, judiciary and media.
But Mr. Musharraf has, to the detriment of the country and himself, failed to leverage these sentiments into a broad coalition against militancy. To save his country from disaster, his only choice now is to step aside - a step the U.S. and Pakistan's other benefactors should encourage.
Faced with two types of threats - militants who cut off the heads of his soldiers on one side, and the judiciary and political opposition on the other - Mr. Musharraf has conflated both, and in fact inflicted greater wrath on the latter. In doing so, he antagonizes the politicians, institutions and population segments whose support is critical for him to decisively combat terror. They are his natural allies in this war, though politically they are his foes. Mr. Musharraf blames them for stifling his countermilitancy campaign, but he and his dual roles as army chief and president are more culpable.
Mr. Musharraf's dualism is contradictory and paralyzing. As chief of army staff, he needs widespread public and elite support to isolate and defeat the terrorists. As a partisan president, he needs to divide and conquer the opposition to maintain political power. Although a brilliant military strategist and effective ruler, he has failed at politics - said to be the art of compromise. And his political trials have distracted him and the senior army brass from their national security responsibilities.
Though his political demise has been reported prematurely many times, Mr. Musharraf now could be the instigator of widespread chaos in Pakistan. Consider a worst-case scenario:
First, Pakistan's mainstream political opposition takes to the streets against Mr. Musharraf. Though thrashed by security forces, the protests swell. At the same time, insurgencies in Baluchistan, Swat and Waziristan intensify.
Terrorists continue to attack Pakistan's major cities. Turmoil is widespread, hundreds, if not thousands, die, and Pakistan nears anarchy (though its nuclear weapons are never in danger because of the solid command-and-control structure).
With public anger fully focused on Mr. Musharraf, the army overthrows him, deciding that he is an unbearable liability to the institution. In the end, the military partially withdraws to the barracks so it can focus on defeating the multiple insurgencies. But Pakistan's institutions are torn, and the country is irreparably fractured. Once an emerging economy and transitional democracy, Pakistan remains a stagnant kleptocracy for years. And all this occurs because one man has sought a political transition on his terms.
There is a way out, however. Mr. Musharraf's three major foreign benefactors - the U.S., Saudi Arabia and China - can give him an ultimatum: Resign from your two posts now (and enjoy a clean exit while it's still possible) and restore the constitution within two weeks, or we'll cut off your aid.
In the short term, civilian support for a comprehensive military campaign against terrorists should come with a promise by a post-Musharraf military to restore the constitution and pre-emergency courts, as well as free and fair national and provincial parliamentary elections operated by an independent election commission and supervised by international monitors.
Beyond that, Pakistan's elite must work together to develop an efficient, constitutional and consensus-based distribution of labor among the military, democratically elected politicians and the judiciary. If these institutions perform their primary tasks in concert, Pakistan can for the first time have security, democracy and the rule of law.
Arif Rafiq is a policy and communications consultant and editor of The Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com).