Once a paratrooper, always a paratrooper. That's how Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf could be described in the wake of his decision over the weekend to suspend the Constitution and impose a state of emergency. He has always managed to shoot his way out of tight corners in the past. But will the tactic work this time?
These last six months, he has come under pressure from four directions:
The Islamists, prompted by al Qaeda's desperate need to open a new front to cover its setbacks in Iraq, have stepped up their attacks, causing more than 3,000 deaths since last July. Their goal is to murder political leaders, divide the armed forces and prevent elections that they know they'd lose decisively.
The judiciary, led by the ambitious Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, has claimed that, with politicians tainted by corruption and cronyism and the generals unable to deal with the problems, the country should be ruled by lawyers.
Chaudhry (whom Musharraf sacked on Sunday) persuaded a majority of the Supreme Court to declare Musharraf's recent re-election as president illegal on grounds that he couldn't head the army and be a candidate for civilian office. In fact, the key reason Musharraf declared the emergency was to forestall the high court's ruling against him.
The irony in all this is that Musharraf (who seized power in a 1999 coup) appointed Chaudhry and his colleagues. But the judges' campaign has resonated with Pakistanis, a majority of whom want proper constitutional rule restored.
The top military brass was also pushing Musharraf, demanding he "untie the army's hands" to let it take on the Islamists without being constrained by legal niceties. In fact, the high command has pushed Musharraf since the August massacre at the Red Mosque in Islamabad to declare martial law.
The United States and (to a lesser extent) other NATO countries have been pressing Musharraf by demanding that he make a deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Brokered by the State Department's Richard Boucher, the Musharraf-Bhutto deal assumed that the general would stay as president while the former premier returned to power in elections set for January.
Unable to ward off these pressures, the general opted to shoot his way out by imposing the emergency. But, while it fell short of the full martial law that the top brass wanted, it was enough to undermine the deal made with Bhutto and embarrass Washington. And, though it may bring the judiciary under control long enough for Musharraf's second term to stick, it's sure to intensify the military-judiciary power struggle.
Some analysts have described the move as a coup d'etat. If so, it must be seen as a coup against Musharraf himself: He has suspended the Constitution that he dictated and purged a Supreme Court that he had filled with his erstwhile cronies.
It is also unlikely to change the basic elements of an unstable and dangerous situation. The Islamists may disappear into the woodwork for a while, but they'll return at the first opportunity. The judicial purge won't quench the thirst most Pakistanis feel for restored rule of law under an elected government. And if the Bhutto deal survives, the former premier may lose a part of her constituency in the process, thus weakening the tandem as a whole.
Musharraf may think that he's so indispensable that America will endorse his latest shenanigans.
To be sure, America, in its global War on Terror, depends on Pakistan more than any regional ally. Pakistan's cooperation, including the use of its airspace and ports, is needed to supply the U.S. and NATO contingents in Afghanistan. Were Pakistan to ignore the terrorist "emirates" set up by al Qaeda and the Taliban on its territory, the global jihad could quickly rebuild the home base it lost when Mullah Muhammad Omar's regime collapsed in Afghanistan in 2002. And the prospect of Islamists seizing power in Pakistan - the only Muslim nation with a nuclear arsenal - is too frightening to ignore.
What should Washington do? It would be foolish to announce grandiose but ultimately ineffective measures to punish Musharraf. Diplomatic gestures may please editorialists, but would have no effect on the savage struggle for power in a complex political context.
Like it or not, Musharraf remains a key player in Pakistani politics - at least until a new, properly elected government is installed. Opinion polls before the weekend showed that Musharraf, at 23 percent support, was the least unpopular political figure in Pakistan. It makes no sense to alienate him at this moment; that would only strengthen more hard-line generals in the Pakistani high command.
This does not mean that Washington should endorse every one of Musharraf's quixotic moves. Having pumped almost $10 billion in aid and agreed to lift the ban on the sale of advanced warplanes to Pakistan, America can claim a say in how the next scenes are scripted. The guiding principle must be a commitment to the restoration of democratic rule through free elections.
While not breaking with Musharraf, Washington must put some clear blue sky between itself and the general. It could do that by insisting that the elections take place, although a brief postponement may be inevitable. It's important to insist, as President Bush has done, that Musharraf relinquish his uniform at the start of his second term. The United States should also warn Musharraf not to provoke any new incident with India as a means of diverting attention from domestic troubles.
In 1999, Musharraf came to power through a coup and didn't impose martial law. Eight years later, he has opted for a second coup, this time with the iron fist - a biting comment on his own performance in office.