A last chance for Musharraf

The Baltimore Sun

The next few weeks, or maybe days, will determine the fate of Pakistan - a country containing Islamist terrorist groups and nuclear weapons.

It's no wonder that Gen. Pervez Musharraf thought the White House would have to back a dictator over a restoration of constitutional rule. After all, President Bush has ditched his democracy pitch in Arab countries like Egypt, where he's bought the argument that only a strongman can hold back the Islamists. But when it comes to Pakistan, that argument doesn't hold water. Despite about $10 billion in U.S. aid, the Taliban and al-Qaida have set up bases in northwest Pakistan; domestic jihadis are setting off suicide bombs and seizing control of peaceful Pakistani villages. With corruption rife, and poverty widespread, Mr. Musharraf's support at home has plummeted.

President Bush seems finally to have grasped that Mr. Musharraf has become an obstacle to the anti-terrorist fight. There is a reasonable way out for Mr. Musharraf, but he has refused to grasp it. Time for this option is quickly evaporating.

Mr. Musharraf could have made a deal with Pakistan's strongest civilian politician, Benazir Bhutto, that permitted him to remain president, while she became prime minister via elections. The White House tried to facilitate this Plan A.

Instead, Mr. Musharraf tossed the judges - along with thousands of protesting lawyers and other leaders of civil society - in jail. When Ms. Bhutto finally decided to call her followers to the streets Friday, he put her under temporary house arrest and imprisoned hundreds of her party leaders.

Under U.S. pressure, Mr. Musharraf now says he'll shed his uniform and hold elections. With the judiciary in jail and the media muzzled, few believe him.

"No one will accept elections under him or a government he sets up," I was told by the well-known Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid.

The key question is whether the army will keep backing the general-president. Mr. Musharraf's designated successor as military commander if he leaves the army is Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, a man widely admired within the Pakistani military and by members of Pakistani civil society. Mr. Kiyani is said to be a "soldier's soldier" who wants the army out of politics. U.S. and Pakistani military officials have told the media that Mr. Kiyani supports a stronger military effort against Islamic extremists.

Mr. Kiyani is also said to support a new U.S. plan to train Pakistani troops to fight Islamic extremists in the country's tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Equally important, his background indicates he would be ready to work with an elected civilian leader like Ms. Bhutto, who is favored to win free and fair elections.

This brings us to Plan B, replacing Mr. Musharraf with a new team to handle Pakistan's security: an elected civilian leader (probably Ms. Bhutto) with a strong popular base, and a new army commander, both committed to fighting Pakistan's internal jihadi scourge.

Can the White House advance such an outcome? Any heavy-handed interference would undercut the legitimacy of a new team.

However, Pakistanis with whom I've spoken urge Mr. Bush to press more strongly for a return to constitutional rule with genuinely free elections. They say he should urge President Musharraf to step down, or seek re-election as a civilian president.

Should such pressure fail, Mr. Rashid, the journalist, expects civil unrest inside Pakistan to increase; he expects the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida to take full advantage of such a political vacuum. At some point the army would probably have to intervene and force Mr. Musharraf out, but only after months of dangerous chaos. This can be avoided if we can only get to Plan B.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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