Just Another General


Los Angeles Times

January 9, 2005

On Sept. 11, 2001, the main protector of the Taliban — and Al Qaeda — outside Afghanistan was the government of next-door Pakistan. But by the next day, President Pervez Musharraf had responded to Washington's "with us or against us" ultimatum by throwing in with the United States. Sort of.

Musharraf then had been running Pakistan for two years, having seized power in a coup. After the 9/11 attacks he promised to step down as army chief of staff while keeping his presidential post, a promise he repeated as each year dawned. But when 2005 arrived, there was the president on television, telling the nation he just couldn't take off the uniform yet: He needed to keep his army post so he could continue fighting terrorism.

That argument is not totally specious — Musharraf has twice survived assassination attempts by Islamic fundamentalists — but unless he does a far better job of using his combined civilian and military posts to improve Pakistan's economy, educational system and political institutions, he'll be just the latest in the country's dismal list of generals who seized power and refused to let go.

Musharraf has rigged elections, proclaimed himself president and constantly insisted to Washington that it's him or terrorism. After turning to hard-line Islamic parties for support, he is now trying to use the secular Pakistan People's Party to undercut the Islamists.

The best thing for Pakistan now would be for him to let the PPP's leader, Benazir Bhutto, back into the country and let her party and the rival but also secular Pakistan Muslim League choose their own candidates in elections.

When Pakistan promised to help hunt Osama bin Laden and block Al Qaeda fighters from fleeing across the border with Afghanistan, Washington rewarded it by ending sanctions and ordering an aid package of up to $3 billion. But the U.S. should insist on value for the money. The Bush administration should demand that Pakistan establish secular public primary schools to compete with fundamentalist madrasas that preach hatred of all religions except Islam.

Musharraf also has stiff-armed Washington in its attempts to talk with Abdul Qadeer Khan, who helped North Korea, Iran and Libya pursue nuclear weapons. The general claimed Khan was a "rogue scientist" and then pardoned him. Musharraf's claim that Khan acted without the knowledge of top generals and civilian leaders is laughable.

Pakistan has alternated for most of its 57 years of independence between rule by corrupt civilian governments and by army generals. If Musharraf does nothing to improve his country, Washington should call him to account. The U.S. has billions of dollars worth of leverage; leaving it idle does no one any good.