Pundits of all stripes have predicted an early demise for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for almost seven years now. Just six weeks after he acceded in a bloodless coup in 1999, a Pakistani-American financier sent me an "urgent" e-mail quoting "reliable sources" that the general would soon be ousted.
It is thus no surprise to see speculation about "imminent dramatic changes" in Pakistan once again. One Musharraf minister has announced that the government may impose a state of emergency to cope with internal and external threats. Cited as indicators that the president is on his way out are Musharraf's setback in his ill-advised duel with the head of the Supreme Court, as well as the recent carnage at the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
A closer look at Pakistan's complex situation, however, shows a different picture. As things heat up, Pakistan may need Musharraf more than at any other time.
* Faced with a growing Islamist challenge, the last thing Pakistan needs is a military coup or another dramatic regime change. Any institutional crisis at the summit of the state would only undermine its legitimacy and thus encourage elements that wish to replace the republic with a Taliban-style "Islamic emirate."
* No charismatic figure now exists to bring the nation's disparate forces together at a time of dangerous transition.
* And Pakistan can ill-afford another military coup economically. Tanks rolling in Islamabad could quickly undo Musharraf's success in restoring the economy to growth and attracting unprecedented foreign investment.
Pakistan's best bet would be for Musharraf to stay at his post until after the next general election. Then, he should be asked to give up either the presidency or command of the armed forces.
This, however, doesn't mean business as usual for the president. While Musharraf's overall performance in office remains positive, he would be ill-advised not to recognize his record's negatives.
The first of these stems from a desire to abolish the country's political life. Musharraf sees politics as a messy, dishonest and, ultimately, unnecessary business. Like past military rulers of Pakistan, he has tried to destroy the political currents that have provided Pakistan with a lively political life and, despite its many faults and endemic corruption, struck deep roots in the nation's psyche.
Recent weeks have brought signs that Musharraf may be toning down his anti-political, anti-democratic prejudices. Notably, the general swallowed his deep dislike of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and met her for what seems to have been a useful encounter last month.
Musharraf needn't change his personal sentiments toward Bhutto. But he must acknowledge the fact that she cannot be scripted out of Pakistan's political life.
And he has another bitter pill to swallow: lifting the ban he has imposed on other parties and personalities - including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
By excluding Pakistan's traditional, people-based parties and leaders, Musharraf left the field open for the very Taliban-style groups that are trying to murder him.
If my information is correct, Musharraf now knows that he's closer to Bhutto and Sharif than to the fanatical demagogues who preach murder and mayhem in religion's name.
What Pakistan needs is a democratic front against terrorism. Musharraf can't create such a front alone. Only leaders and parties that can mobilize Pakistan's silent majority can isolate and ultimately defeat the terrorists.
Musharraf also seems to have taken a decisive step toward correcting his major foreign-policy mistake: hedging his bets in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban's fall, the leaders in Islamabad, Musharraf among them, watched with consternation as decades of investment by the Pakistani state appeared to go up in smoke. While joining the U.S.-led War on Terror, Musharraf decided to keep some chips on the Taliban and kindred groups.
It's unfair to blame Pakistan for keeping the Taliban alive - it also gets support from the mullahs in Tehran and Islamists throughout the world - but there's no doubt that Musharraf has done less than his share in fighting them.
Part of the blame for this lies with the new Afghan leadership under President Hamid Karzai. Boosted by support from Washington, the new Afghan ruling elite revived Kabul's traditional anti-Pakistan strategy. It also cultivated ties with India, Russia and the Islamic Republic in Iran in anticipation of an eventual American withdrawal.
One message that President Bush passed on to Karzai during their meeting in Washington last week was a U.S. demand for a speedy improvement in Afghan-Pakistan relations. As two nations that, together with Iraq, represent the key frontlines of the War on Terror, Afghanistan and Pakistan can't afford to play with each other's security because of petty prejudices and shop-worn irredentist dreams.
The Karzai-Musharraf summit last week and the Pakistani leader's appearance at the influential Tribal Council of Afghanistan signaled a potentially important change in attitude by both sides.
To defeat terrorism, Pakistan needs unity. That can be achieved only through free elections open to all parties and, preferably, under a neutral caretaker government. Once the internal democratic front is in place, Pakistan would also need to develop a united front with Afghanistan to pursue the War on Terror to ultimate victory, with or without NATO.
On both counts, Musharraf has a major role to play. News of his imminent political demise may well prove premature.