A Slender Reed in Pakistan

The two recent attempts to assassinate Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, expose again the fragile foundation underlying US policy regarding Pakistan's neighbor, Afghanistan, and the broader war on terrorism.

Before Sept. 11, Western capitals widely viewed Pakistan as a failed state - soon to become the next Somalia or Taliban-led Afghanistan. It was exporting trouble in almost every direction: The government tolerated the infiltration of Islamist militants into Indian-controlled Kashmir; the Pakistani security service supported the Taliban regime; and the country's nuclear scientists were trading secrets to other nations.

Internally, General Musharraf seized power in 1999, yet another military coup for Pakistan. Each coup has resulted in further erosion of the original secular democracy, as generals played to Islamist extremist groups as a power base to balance the civilian political parties.

The Islamists' power has only strengthened as the state failed to address a collapsing economy and education system. Thousands of young men and boys study in militant Islamic schools, from which both the Taliban and anti-Indian guerrillas have emerged. Discrimination against minority Muslim groups such as the Ahmadis was enshrined in the Constitution, open street-fighting often rages between the country's Sunni and Shiite communities, and Islamist extremists attack the indigent Christian minority. The government's control in tribal areas along the Afghan border can sometimes be shaky.

The Bush administration had little choice but to work with Musharraf after Sept. 11. Yet he has not delivered on many promises, either because of weakness or unwillingness. While he's detained some 500 Al Qaeda militants, he hasn't really cracked down on the Taliban exiles and the Islamist extremists who support and shelter them. These groups are probably behind four assassination tries in two years.

Musharraf says he wants peace with India, but he hasn't worked hard enough to cut off guerrilla infiltration into the Indian zone of majority- Muslim Kashmir.

Observers are still scratching their heads over his announcement last week of a deal with Islamists to surrender his post as Army chief in return for extending his term of office to 2007. The next day suicide bombers tried for the fourth time to kill him - possibly with inside help.

The problem is that no one can see an alternative to Musharraf. Pakistan's civilian politicians have been notoriously incompetent rulers. But the Bush administration and its allies had better be looking for other allies in Pakistan - and developing policy options that include them.

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