- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Recent developments in Pakistan highlight the complexity of striking the right U.S. policy toward that country. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is generally seen as a critical ally in the global counterterror effort, guardian of stability and willing participant in ongoing peace talks with India. On the other side of the scale is the president’s ambiguous commitment to democracy and Pakistan’s murky past in nuclear proliferation.

Mr. Musharraf’s sweeping powers came into sharper focus this past weekend with his de facto firing of Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali. Mr. Jamali officially stepped down, but he was clearly forced out by Mr. Musharraf. On Friday, Mr. Jamali told journalists that rumors he was on his way out were false.

Mr. Musharraf has tapped Shaukat Aziz, who has served as finance minister since 1999, to become the next prime minister. Mr. Aziz is broadly respected as a capable technocrat, but he has no power base of his own and is one of Mr. Musharraf’s closest associates. Mr. Aziz must first win a seat in the lower house before he can take over as prime minister. In the meantime, Musharraf ally Chaudry Shujaat Hussain will serve as interim prime minister.

Mr. Jamali’s ouster highlights the lack of checks and balances under the Musharraf government. As part of a negotiated deal, Mr. Musharraf has gained the power to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve parliament. In exchange, he pledged to give up his post as head of the military in December, though he would remain president until 2007. Mr. Musharraf has recently suggested he may not hand in his military uniform in December as promised.

More positively, India and Pakistan recently took another step toward building mutual trust, by formally committing to give advance notice of missile tests and open a hot line to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange. They also pledged to reopen consulates and to find a resolution to their dispute over the region of Kashmir. These talks are critical to defusing tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries and, therefore, are central to the interests of the international community.

U.S. officials, though, shouldn’t mute concerns over the pace of democratic reform for the sake of backing the India-Pakistan talks or counterterror cooperation. All of these issues are key to Pakistani and U.S. interests. The United States must also continue to push for transparency on Pakistan’s nonproliferation controls.

Establishing democracy isn’t an entirely smooth process. While there are no guarantees, Pakistan has established political parties and democratic institutions to pave the way. Still, U.S. officials can’t be seen by the Pakistanis as supporting the president at the expense of democracy.

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