- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s resignation signals the reinvigoration of Pakistani democracy. However, the ruling coalition government will have a long and difficult road ahead in addressing the economic crisis and in curbing Islamic militants that threaten the nation’s stability. “The biggest hurdle in the way of democracy is gone,” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with his father, Asif Ali. Mr. Zardari and his father assumed control of the PPP following the December assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto. “Now the coalition government can move on and solve the problems of the people,” said Mr. Zardari. The PPP shares power with the Pakistan Muslim League led by Shahbaz Sharif.

The United States has a keen national-security interest in the affairs of Pakistan due to its nuclear arsenal and the fact that it borders India - which is also a nuclear power. India and Pakistan have been embroiled in a long-standing dispute over Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region within India’s borders that seeks to join Pakistan. American officials have sought to ensure that the dispute does not erupt into a nuclear war. Moreover, Islamic extremists in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan have repeatedly crossed over into Afghanistan and have threatened the current pro-Western, democratic government led by President Hamid Karzai. Indeed, the extremists yearn for bloodshed: They tried four times to assassinate Mr. Musharraf and succeeded with Mrs. Bhutto.

Allowing terrorists to grasp Pakistan’s nuclear weapons must not happen.

Since the September 11 attacks, Mr. Musharraf has been a staunch U.S. ally in these efforts. He has sought a peaceful relationship with India and, despite much domestic resistance, has tried to bring the border regions under control.Yet, he has failed to uphold his country’s constitution and has ruled with a heavy hand. This has repeatedly put the Bush administration in an awkward position.

After nine years in power, Mr. Musharraf resigned today rather than face impeachment charges for violating the constitution and harming the economy. He stated that, in stepping aside, he was acting in the best interests of his country: “The coalition has decided that I am part of the problem and not the solution,” he said in his concession speech. “I could fight back and answer back, but that may have led to deepening uncertainty.”

Indeed, the pressure for his resignation was mounting. The country’s four provincial legislatures passed votes of non-confidence in him and he faced the prospect of public humiliation in impeachment proceedings. The former military commando came to power with a 1999 coup that ousted Mr. Sharif, put him on trial for corruption charges and exiled him to Saudi Arabia. At the time, the people welcomed Mr. Musharraf. Now, they applaud his departure. Ironically, Mr. Sharif, who returned last year from exile and had vowed political revenge, appears to have won the contest of wills.

Mr. Musharraf’s stalwart attempts to assist America against Islamic extremists earned him $10 billion in aid for his country. Yet, he altered the nation’s constitution at a whim in order to augment his powers. His failure to restore civilian rule in a timely fashion ultimately led to a backlash that forced him from office His worst offense was in firing Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in 2007 and 60 other judges whom he feared would threaten the legitimacy of his rule. Mr. Musharraf at last stepped down as army chief. But his gesture was too little, too late. Ultimately, his tenure of power fell far short of the “true democracy” he had promised in 1999.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that Mr. Musharraf has been a “friend to the United States” and one of the “most committed partners in the war against terrorism and extremism”; he has earned the “deep gratitude” of America and its allies.Yet America is treading a difficult line in attempting to both support a democratic Pakistan, on the one hand, and fighting extremism on the other hand, which requires strong government.

Mr. Musharraf survived four assassination attempts precisely because Muslim extremists despise him for his alliance with America. At the same time, Mr. Musharraf was also repeatedly accused of not “doing enough” against the extremists, especially in the border area with Afghanistan. The most difficult challenge America faces, and will continue to face, is how to both strengthen civilian democratic rule, while at the same time nurturing the growth of the kind of strong government needed to curtail the extremists.

The resignation of Mr. Musharraf is a good sign for Pakistani democracy, but it remains to be seen whether Pakistani democracy can achieve the cohesion and strength needed to hold Islamic extremists at bay.