The United States should hold its nose and stick with Musharraf. He currently occupies a unique position in Pakistani politics and could still serve as an essential transitional figure during the next few weeks, months, and possibly even years.
That said, Musharraf should neither be oversold nor given a free pass. He is a flawed leader, one who has failed to achieve many of his own stated goals for Pakistan or to advance Washington’s counterterrorism agenda as rapidly as Americans might like. His declaration of emergency rule represents another serious stain on his record and threatens to undermine two of his biggest accomplishments: Pakistan’s strong economic growth and the proliferation of its private electronic media outlets.
Musharraf’s signal shortcoming since his assumption of power in 1999 has been his inability to build a political party with grassroots appeal. The tumultuous politics of this pre-election year have resulted in large part from the weakness of his Pakistan Muslim League (PML), a party incapable of staving off twin challenges at the ballot box from Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, both failed former prime ministers.
Why then should Washington hold on to Musharraf, whose popularity in Pakistan has reached a new low and who clearly stiff-armed the Bush administration’s appeals to avoid emergency rule?
In the immediate term, Musharraf offers Washington continuity in the face of uncertain political transition. He is a familiar face, a leader with whom the Bush administration has established a sustained working relationship. Under even the smoothest possible transition scenarios, Musharraf’s departure would interrupt bilateral cooperation on military, counterterrorism, and intelligence matters for days or weeks—with uncertain consequences for U.S. security.