Getting bin Laden up a tree

The Monitor's View: The US can better corner Al Qaeda in Pakistan if it helps ease that nation's return to democracy.

The Bush doctrine of expanding democracy to flush out Islamic terrorism has reached a critical test in Pakistan, where Al Qaeda leaders are in hiding. The nation's military ruler was forced last week to meet with the leading opposition figure. The move offers hope of a democracy restored.

Much more bargaining will likely be needed before President Pervez Musharraf gives up command of the military and allows a free election for a civilian prime minister, perhaps in a few months. Dictatorships don't usually go easily.

But it is to General Musharraf's credit that he appears ready to recognize his worsening political plight as well as the threat from Islamic radicals and seek a peaceful transition to civilian rule – if all sides can pull it off.

His secret meeting Friday in the Middle East with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto – who was forced into exile after Musharraf's 1999 coup and still leads the largest opposition party – comes after months of trauma to Pakistan: Musharraf's sacking of the chief justice, a military raid on Muslim militants holed up in the capital's Red Mosque, the Supreme Court's reinstatement of the chief justice, and then a report this month from all 16 US intelligence agencies that the central front in the war on Al Qaeda lies in the "comfort zone" in Pakistan's border areas with Afghanistan.

The report, known as the National Intelligence Estimate, has heightened concern that the US might soon step up military action inside Pakistan against Al Qaeda beyond the limited incursions that have been condoned so far by Musharraf. But violating another nation's sovereignty for the sake of an uncertain victory against Osama bin Laden could possibly lead to serious political backlash in Pakistan, and create an opening for Islamic parties to gain an upper hand. (In the 2002 parliamentary elections, Islamist parties did their best ever.)

The threshold for any preemptive US attacks needs to be extremely high if the US is not to "lose" Pakistan to anti-American leaders.

After eight years in power, Musharraf has done much to bolster Pakistan against Islamic radicalism, but not nearly enough. While the economy has grown at a healthy clip, it's likely that a civilian government – one that honors the rule of law and fights graft – could do better to meet both the US and Pakistani interests in curbing the jihadi training in the nation's largely lawless border areas. Only then can Mr. bin Laden be put on the run again, or captured.

The most difficult part in the expected political transition is to define the military's role in government. As a nationalist force, it sees itself as guardian of Pakistan's interests in tense relations with Afghanistan and India. If the US can help reduce those tensions, the better civilians can rule.

Musharraf took power because civilian rulers were wrecking the country. If he now hangs up his army uniform as part of a deal and remains as a civilian president, a delicate political balance must be maintained. The US can respond with greater assistance in trade, aid, and other areas.

As much President Bush says Iraq is the central battlefield with Al Qaeda, he now needs to focus on Pakistan in the coming days.

The battle can be won with ballots as much as with bullets.

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