A green light to oust Al Qaeda

Bhutto's return to Pakistan signals a democratic alliance to attack the terrorist camps.

If the United States had a hand in Thursday's return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan, it was for good reason. Pakistan needs a new democratic alliance if it is to oust Al Qaeda and Taliban chieftains – and their terrorist training camps – from the tribal, mountainous areas.

Ms. Bhutto's return from eight years of exile came as the Pakistani Army began a new offensive in the largely lawless Waziristan provinces along the border with Afghanistan. The timing was not coincidental.

Such an aggressive operation indicates new confidence that an alliance between the popular Bhutto and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, can better stand up to domestic Islamic political foes who support Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

While a new civilian, democratic government may not be as stable as Mr. Musharraf's eight years of military rule, at least it may have more legitimacy to help make sure that Taliban-leaning officers in the Army carry out orders to attack Islamic militants. (The Army has suffered from defections of religious Sunnis and ethnic Pashtuns.) Before her return, Bhutto told Western diplomats of her resolve to fight terrorists, citing her record during her premiership.

Musharraf's recent political blunders forced him to reach out to Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, through distant negotiations helped along by American diplomats.

But another reason for pressing this alliance on him was heightened Western concern about his ability to oust Al Qaeda.

Since 2006, Al Qaeda has been better able to use its hideouts along the border for training and to inspire attacks in Europe and the United States. Recent arrests of Islamic militants in Europe revealed they were trained by Al Qaeda or its allies in Pakistan. Last month, for instance, German police arrested three suspects with ties to Al Qaeda in Pakistan. They allegedly plotted to blow up vehicles near American military bases.

One possible reason for Al Qaeda's renewed strength of its strategic command in Pakistan is that its ability to use Iraq as a launch pad or training ground has been seriously eroded by US military advances. But at the same time, both Al Qaeda and the Taliban have used their camps to destabilize Afghanistan and kill NATO forces there.

The Bhutto-Musharraf alliance will be a test of a key Bush doctrine that the promotion of democracy in Islamic nations is the best, long-range antidote to Islamic terrorism. That doctrine's test in Iraq is still very much in doubt.

Will Pakistan prove itself any better? Much depends on how well Musharraf and Bhutto lay aside personal ambition to run a government for the common good. Their successful negotiations for her return give some hope that they have let go of past differences. If so, their task is to make sure their followers do the same.

Both still face hurdles. Musharraf, while reelected as president Oct. 6, awaits word from the high court on whether his candidacy was legitimate. And Bhutto has high hopes of being elected prime minister in a coming election – if Musharraf really does support her.

On such details rests the world's hope for an end to Al Qaeda's ability to find a haven.

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