In the war on terrorism, help from the US-friendly dictator in Pakistan has had real advantages. This week, America discovered its risk. Washington's partner was rebuked in parliamentary elections on Feb. 18, and now democracy – messy and uncertain – is the new order in nuclear-tipped Pakistan.
It's better this way, although it may not appear so immediately.
The outlines of the new political scene are still fuzzy as the two largest winners – moderate parties led by returned exiles – begin talks about forming a new government. They reject working with the trounced party of President Musharraf, America's ally since 9/11.
Pervez Musharraf came to power through a military coup in 1999. At US request, and with the incentive of billions of dollars in assistance, he reversed Pakistan's support for the extremist Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan and joined the anti-terrorism fight.
But Mr. Musharraf's popular support has drained away in the last year as he interfered with the independence of the courts, imposed a state of emergency, restricted the media, and postponed elections. On everyday issues of rising prices and power outages, he was powerless.
Washington found itself strategic buddies with a ruler despised by the people (look to the Middle East to see the resentment and violence this can breed). Over the long term, the US requires the support of the Pakistani people – not one man.
This won't be easy. Political instability may well characterize coming months. No love is lost between the leaders of the dominant parties – Asif Zardari (widower of assassinated Benazir Bhutto, and whose party received the most votes) and Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister ousted by Musharraf. Both are tarred with corruption charges.
Neither will they necessarily fall in line with the US. They favor more talk than confrontation with Islamist militants in Pakistan's western tribal areas. Earlier deals have only allowed the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and national insurgents hiding in these areas to spread their roots.
And yet, the democracy trend can work to America's advantage. A new Army chief has ordered the decoupling of the military from political office, and that will help legitimize Pakistani forces. Public opinion, too, is in line with America's goals – if not with the US itself.
Seventy-three percent of Pakistanis believe religious extremism is a serious problem, according to a January poll by the nonpartisan International Republican Institute. Indeed, voters this week repudiated the Islamist parties in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.
But Pakistanis don't like their military fighting extremists in the northwest area, and 89 percent oppose cooperation with the US in the war on terrorism – which they view as America's war.
For the US, this underscores the need to beef up the nonmilitary component of cooperation. Indeed, this is the first year Washington will target economic development aid to Pakistan's northwest region.
Mr. Zardari says he wants to show Pakistanis that the war on terror is their war. Supported by a democratic process, he has a much greater possibility of doing this than did Musharraf – and by supporting Pakistan's new democracy, the US has a greater possibility of winning its people's hearts and minds.