In the seven years since Sept. 11, President Bush has relied heavily on dictators in Muslim nations to keep a lid on Al Qaeda. It was a quick and easy way to prevent another attack on his watch. But with Monday's resignation of Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, Mr. Bush must now deal with an angry democracy in a land that still harbors Al Qaeda.
Mr. Musharraf, a former Army chief of staff, tried not to be too dictatorial after overthrowing an elected leader in 1999 and arranging for himself to be president. But even though he built a thriving economy and was never seen as corrupt, he was forced to legitimize his rule by increasingly harsh measures. His mistakes created a backlash leading to parliamentary elections in February, then a threat of impeachment from a new anti-Musharaff government, and finally his forced resignation.
It was the best way for this US ally to go.
He was forced out by civilians using a constitution, with a nod of approval from an army that seems to prefer staying out of politics for now, and with probable mediation by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
What happens to Musharraf in private life, and who will replace him as elected president, will absorb Pakistani politics for a while. In the meantime, a lame-duck Bush administration must decide where to put its money and trust in Pakistan's splintered elected leadership and in an army still riddled with sympathizers for Islamic radicals but receiving US military aid to suppress the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Bush, and soon either John McCain or Barack Obama, might be tempted to again back figures in Pakistan that promise quick suppression of jihadi extremists that thrive in the tribal, mountainous areas. While Musharraf did help in the capture of key Al Qaeda figures – which probably prevented some terrorist attacks – he failed to build up democratic institutions and popular support. This would have brought the largely lawless areas near Afghanistan into mainstream society or helped them see it as in their interest to repel militants.
A vast majority of Pakistanis do not support militant Islam but they do resent the way the US pushed Musharraf to target militants and reform the military. Only as Musharraf's rule weakened did Bush begin to help the transition to civilian rule, such as aiding the return of Benazir Bhutto (who was later assassinated, most likely by Islamic militants).
Either leader – or a coalition of the two – must move quickly to restore the judiciary, civil service, and an economy in decline. Civilian rule over the military also must be strengthened.
The US must offer to assist this healing process and bolster democracy in Pakistan as the best bulwark against terrorists. Elected civilian leaders, without American pressure, will see it as in their country's interest not to let Islamic militants jeopardize Pakistani democracy.
The best allies for the US, during the cold war and now in a war on terror, have been leaders elected in a fair manner. A heavy US hand in Pakistan only plays into the militants' agenda.