Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has doggedly made the case to Washington that he is the finger in the dike holding back a wave of Islamic extremism that could again reach America's shores.
Having successfully argued his own indispensability, General Musharraf has reaped billions of dollars in economic aid and arms sales – while encountering little challenge from Washington over his backsliding from steps toward democratic rule.
But now it is political protest, fueled by Musharraf's steps to consolidate and extend his power, that is washing over Pakistan. And that is presenting the US with a classic dilemma of the war on terrorism: Does a key leader's security value outweigh his authoritarian practices, and when does democratic rule become the greater guarantor of security?
Earlier this month, Musharraf suspended the country's Supreme Court chief justice. Ever since, Pakistan's middle classes – ironically one of the chief beneficiaries of the military leader's eight-year rule – have taken to the streets. Also fueling the uproar are suspicions that Musharraf is paving the way to another term as both president and chief military leader.
The protests are prompting concern, both in Pakistan and the US, that pent-up political frustrations and social stagnation threaten the stability of a key American ally at least as much as Islamic extremism in the country's less-advanced regions.
"For too long, we've heard that the only alternative to Musharraf is something worse. But the fact is we don't need him if he doesn't move towards a civilianized government with broadened representation of Pakistan's people," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program of the Center for International Policy in Washington. The lack of political reform and civilian rule has exacerbated divisions, he says, "and the more polarized Pakistan is, the more unstable it's going to be."
While no one expects the social unrest to cause Musharraf's imminent demise, many observers do see the coming months as crucial to Pakistan's direction.
"This is not just a flare-up. It is reflective of a broader discontent about the failure of the Musharraf regime to take concrete steps to restore civilian rule," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for south Asian affairs. "With elections on the horizon, this could be an important turning point."
Musharraf cited "abuse of power" when he suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry on March 9, and many Pakistanis agreed – with the charge at least, though they attached it to the president himself. Mr. Chaudhry had taken the government to task over hundreds of disappearances of Pakistanis, some suspected Islamic extremists but others human rights activists and representatives of ethnic minority populations.
Perhaps more telling for many Pakistanis, Chaudhry had also expressed his view that it was not legal under the Constitution for Musharraf to seek another presidential term while remaining the Army chief. In addition, he had said publicly that he anticipated a number of ways in which the issue could come before him.
Such open threats to the continued reign of Pakistan's military became intolerable, says Mr. Harrison. "The military establishment is deeply involved in a wide range of business in the country, and they have a big stake in staying in power," he says.
So far, the Bush administration has trod lightly on the political uproar. It has expressed concern over some clashes that have turned violent but has reiterated support for Musharraf as a valuable ally in the war on terror.
But even there, cracks are beginning to show. Last month, in what some Pakistanis called the "tough love" visit, Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise call on Musharraf to warn him that he risked losing support in the United States unless he took tougher steps against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Afghan government has pressed the US for months to get tough with Musharraf over the border issue.
Additional pressure is now coming from Congress, where several moves are afoot to set conditions for US support. Democratic senators John Kerry, Joseph Biden, and Christopher Dodd have introduced a resolution calling for US military assistance to Pakistan to "correlate" to Pakistan's efforts to strike Taliban and Al Qaeda bases on its territory. The House has already adopted even tougher legislation.
The Pakistani military in particular would seem to have good reason to worry about any threat to US military assistance. A study by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington shows that military aid to Pakistan grew from under $10 million in the three years prior to 9/11 to more than $4 billion in the three years after.
Musharraf's approach to the tribal regions along the Afghan border has been to pursue accords with local leaders to deny sanctuary to foreign fighters taking refuge there. The third such accord was signed this week, with some experts suggesting the approach is showing the first signs of results. Critics, however, believe the approach is more reflective of the close ties between Islamists and Pakistan's intelligence services, as well as Musharraf's own ambiguous relations with Islamist forces.
Some experts see an Iran factor in US reluctance to turn the screws on Musharraf. "There's probably more than meets the eye on the administration's resistance to pushing for civilianization in Pakistan," says Harrison. "It is clear we are undertaking covert operations in Iran from Pakistan, aiding disaffected minorities there," he says. "And we have an undetermined agenda with Iran that could include military action at some point down the road, and we would need Pakistan for that."
Still, some see unrest in Pakistan's middle classes as a bigger long-term worry, and they say the US is going to have to take a firmer stand on democratization.
"US policy must be clear that Musharraf can only be elected again as a civilian, and that he must open up to the opposition parties," says Manjeet Kripalani, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
But others echo the State Department stance, saying the US won't get very far issuing orders. "What we can do is present the case for why this is in their interest," says Mr. Inderfurth, now director of graduate international-affairs studies at George Washington University. "We can make the case that if he does not respond to the calls all around him [for political reform], Musharraf risks losing many of the considerable gains he has accomplished."