August 23, 2002

IN THE WEST, the terror visited on the United States last September gilded the status of Pakistan and its president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The general, recognizing the common threat from Islamic extremism, quickly became a critical ally on the front lines of the U.S. war on the Taliban and al-Qaida -- the remnants of which still hide in Pakistan's border areas.

So this week, when Mr. Musharraf unilaterally adopted 29 amendments to Pakistan's Constitution and crowned himself the nation's president, army chief and head of a powerful new National Security Council for five years -- all in the name of "sustainable democracy" -- the immediate U.S. response was tellingly tepid, stressing continued hope for democratic elections in Pakistan this fall. In other words, America still needs him.

Mr. Musharraf's assertion of military power in Pakistan isn't surprising. Pakistan's military and its intelligence operatives have long been key political forces in what mostly remains a warrior state, one of Asia's poorest and one of the world's most indebted. The general, vowing clean modern rule, came to power in a 1999 military coup; last spring he granted himself five years as president in a sham election. Over the summer, he had proposed even more heavy-handed constitutional changes.

As part of his now near-total authority, Mr. Musharraf can sack Pakistan's elected parliament, and his appointed provincial governors can get rid of their respective parliaments. The next prime minister will answer to the new security council. So much for the October elections.

In announcing the military's greater role, the general offered doublespeak: "If you want to keep the army out," he said, "bring them in." He needs all the friends he can get in government.

Having opposed the extremists, at least rhetorically, for the United States (and for $2 billion in Western aid), he's increasingly under siege. Lately, he's even been reportedly confined to Islamabad because of assassination fears.

Leaving aside the critical question of who's using whom here -- that is, whether Mr. Musharraf has been an effective U.S. agent -- America is stuck with him for now. Both of the prime ministers who traded power in the 1990s -- the darling of the West, Benazir Bhutto, and industrialist Nawaz Sharif -- were feudal autocrats, failed to develop Pakistan and became mired in corruption. It's hard to see how a leadership change would suit U.S. aims.

Mr. Musharraf may have become a military dictator, but -- like so many others before him -- he's ours. Short-term interest and war often make for lousy bedfellows.

Of course, it should be kept very much in mind that this wouldn't be the first time America has backed a military government in Pakistan. In the late 1970s, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq funneled U.S. aid to the Islamic resistance against the Soviets occupying Afghanistan -- seeds that bore fruit in the Taliban, al-Qaida and Islamic hard-liners, and that now have come back to threaten Pakistan and the United States.

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