Upheaval in Pakistan

The Baltimore Sun

Democracy prevailed in Pakistan's elections last week, but the United States' war on terrorism took a hit. How big a hit will depend on the new coalition government and its strategy for dealing with Pakistan's northwest tribal region, a home to Muslim militants and a haven for suspected terrorists.

The two political parties that trounced President Pervez Musharraf's supporters in parliamentary elections have agreed to join forces. That puts the fate of Mr. Musharraf in increasing jeopardy and could sideline Pakistan's efforts to roust al-Qaida and Taliban forces from the mountainous area on the Afghan border. Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a former premier, wants Mr. Musharraf out. Asif Ali Zardari, head of the leading Pakistan People's Party and husband of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been less definitive about Mr. Musharraf's role, and the president says he won't resign. If the new parliament tries to reinstate Pakistan's Supreme Court justices, who were ousted by Mr. Musharraf, the power struggle will intensify.

A power-sharing agreement would help in the short term, but that would require accommodations by Mr. Musharraf and Messrs. Zardari and Sharif. Pakistanis voted for a change, but the ability of the new leadership to govern effectively remains to be seen.

As for Pakistan's role in the terrorism fight, Mr. Zardari has said he favors a political accommodation with northwest tribal leaders, and that may improve things. Mr. Musharraf, supported by billions in U.S. aid, used the military and intelligence service to rout suspected terrorists from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But critics have charged that the U.S. hasn't gotten all that it paid for.

As significant as Mr. Musharraf's election loss were the results for Pakistan's main Muslim religious party - it won only a handful of seats, reflecting Pakistanis' overriding preference for a secular government.

The political power has shifted in Islamabad, and U.S. policy needs to reflect that. The United States must maintain strong ties with Pakistan and use its financial aid (with greater accountability) to promote and strengthen democratic institutions as well as fight terrorism. But it first must persuade Pakistan's new leaders of our shared concerns and interests.

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