Friends and enemies

September 13, 2007

The deteriorating political situation in Pakistan has put the Bush administration in an awkward position. President Pervez Musharraf's refusal to allow an exiled opposition leader to return to Pakistan (and instead shipping him off to Saudi Arabia when he landed at the airport) is stoking unrest in the country and spurring calls for his ouster.

Democracy supporters have a legitimate gripe about Mr. Musharraf's heavy-handed tactics. But the Bush administration has been predictably circumspect as its chief ally in the war on terror endeavors to save his job and disregards the law to do it.

The deportation Monday of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is all the more problematic because of the reappearance of Osama bin Laden in new videotapes. Bin Laden was in true form, lecturing America about its failed war in Iraq and praising the "martyrs" of 9/11. His unspoken message, though, was as clear as the hair on his chin: He remains in control of a terrorist network that U.S. intelligence accounts say is rebuilding in Pakistan.

Having an ally focused on bin Laden and his lieutenants as they reorganize and train future jihadists is as critical now as it was in the fall of 2001. Consider the recent arrests of three German terror suspects who allegedly trained in al-Qaida camps in Pakistan.

Mr. Sharif and another political exile, Benazir Bhutto, each head of opposition parties in Pakistan, have called for an end to Mr. Musharraf's rule because of his unconstitutional role as both president and chief of the army. Mr. Sharif was trying to return to Pakistan to mount such a challenge when he was arrested on corruption charges at the Islamabad airport in defiance of a court order that said he could return home.

Caught between its need for a proxy in its battle with al-Qaida and its promotion of democracy, the Bush administration offers up a weak defense of the rule of law as its Pakistani ally flagrantly ignores it. Washington has quietly encouraged power-sharing talks between Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Musharraf - but there is no assurance that a more democratic Pakistan would flush out al-Qaida leaders from its rugged border region, take on their warlord protectors or purge the intelligence services of their allies, and it must.

Ms. Bhutto, playing to Washington's worries, recently warned in the Los Angeles Times, "Decisions made now will determine whether extremism and terrorism can be contained to save Pakistan from internal collapse. The stability of not just Pakistan but the civilized world is at stake."

She's right, up to a point. But if Mr. Musharraf retains his hold on power in any form, it won't be the first time America's interest coincided with that of a military-backed autocrat.

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