Betting on Musharraf

SINCE 9/11, THE United States has been trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Like many a miserable mate, the Bush administration has been known to rue the failings of its partner in private. Yet it has always defended Musharraf in public, arguing that whatever his shortcomings, the alternative is far worse.

Such forbearance may be changing. For the first time, the Bush administration this week let Islamabad know, through Vice President Dick Cheney, that it is unhappy with Pakistan’s performance in fighting the resurgent Taliban. And it hinted that if things don’t improve, the White House might not be able to keep the Democratic-controlled Congress from cutting U.S. aid to Pakistan.

This burst of candor is long overdue -- and so is an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Pakistan. Musharraf, who ousted an elected government in a 1999 coup, has received between $8 billion and $10 billion in direct U.S. aid since 9/11 (and perhaps almost as much in covert aid) yet shows no signs of winning the war against Islamic extremism or of advancing democracy in Pakistan. On the contrary, his hold on power exists in part because of his unholy alliance with Islamist legislators.

President Bush and Congress have been willing to ignore these problems so long as Pakistan was seen as an indispensable ally in the struggle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, was rolling up the Abdul Qadeer Khan black-market nuclear operation and appeared to be improving relations with India. But Islamabad’s failed peace deal in North Waziristan, an escalation in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan and reports of Taliban bases in the tribal areas on Pakistani territory have made that bargain less satisfying. Congress is considering placing conditions on aid.


Meanwhile, the Pakistanis are having their own doubts about the marriage. They believe that the U.S. is just using them in the war on terror and will dump them as soon as they’re no longer needed. And they say they are being blamed for NATO’s failure to curb the Taliban inside Afghanistan -- a weakness highlighted by the suicide bombing Tuesday outside Bagram air base during Cheney’s visit.

The U.S. has a profound interest in the welfare of this strategic Muslim state with nuclear weapons. But what is the purpose of sending $80 million a month in “coalition support” to a Pakistani military that is not willing to fight in the tribal areas? Some conditions need to be imposed on U.S. aid, and some of the aid needs to be redirected to education, development and the building of democracy, including political parties, so that popular alternatives to Musharraf can one day emerge.

Supporters of the status quo say pressuring the politically fragile Musharraf risks his fall and the rise to power of a radical Islamic regime with nuclear weapons. This is unlikely. The Islamists have never gotten more than 11% of the vote, and fared badly in the last (albeit rigged) municipal elections. But the U.S. could increase the likelihood of Islamist success if it continues to allow Musharraf to repress the moderate opposition while making deals with the Islamists.

The U.S. may well be destined for a long marriage of convenience with Pakistan. But its spouse need not necessarily be named Musharraf.