After 9/11, the US had little choice but to rely on Pakistan to free Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and the Taliban – and to try to keep it that way. But since March, Pakistan's ruler has lost popular support. Gen. Pervez Musharraf looks less reliable as an ally in the war on Islamic terrorists.
Washington now faces a difficult decision. Middle-class protests against Mr. Musharraf have risen in recent months, triggered by his ouster of the Supreme Court's chief justice. Violent incidents, such as 42 demonstrators killed in Karachi last weekend, have raised alarm at home and abroad. Support by the military may be fading.
Despite his success in boosting the economy and helping to capture or kill key leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the man who took power in a 1999 coup could be headed for a dangerous downfall.
Unless, of course, the US and other Western powers help arrange a peaceful transition to a less-polarizing figure and to a better form of democracy than Musharraf has tried to manufacture in Pakistan.
For too many years, the Bush administration has shown too much interest in Musharraf as a short-term strategic partner in a hot war and not enough on whether he could deliver a stable democracy that could maintain a long-term struggle against radical Islamists. And the US has largely agreed with him – and many Pakistanis – that the country's history of inept civilian rule demands some sort of strong military hand in government.
Musharraf took power on that popular assumption. But his recent missteps in trying to continue to act as both the top political and military leader indicate the limits of keeping civilian rule at bay too long. Civil liberties erode. Power becomes its own end. It may be time for him to cut a deal for a transition – although to exactly to what or to whom is unknown. Eight years in power is enough for any ruler, especially for one who wants to live in his country once out of power.
Musharraf seems determined to push ahead with elections in October that would likely reelect him as president. But his action against the chief justice and other moves are seen as stepping on the Constitution. Lawyers are leading a middle-class revolt that resonates within the military rank and file.
Pushing for democracy in Islamic countries was a key political weapon in President Bush's war on terror. Iraq is fumbling toward democracy while the US has little hope now that Iraq's key neighbors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – will become democracies with an Islamic base, as Turkey or Indonesia are, anytime soon.
The US can't afford to keep backing Musharraf if more Pakistanis turn against him. It might lose the willingness of 160 million Pakistanis in the fight against the Taliban or Al Qaeda. But finding an able and popular civilian leader to replace Musharraf remains difficult.
Getting out of this box will be a test for US diplomacy in coming weeks and months. Top leaders of Pakistan's political opposition will need to bend as much as Musharraf and many of the top brass.
Both camps need to find a transitional figure who can bridge their differences. They must see Pakistan in its larger role as a pivotal state in a global struggle against terrorism. Such states are better off with a stable democracy.