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Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf always was a dicey choice as an ally for the United States: A military strongman posing as a democratic president, a man with uncertain control of his own arsenal of nuclear weapons, a Muslim general hemmed in between religious extremists and a well-educated secular middle class, all the while looking warily east to India instead of west to Afghanistan, as the United States might prefer.

But geography is destiny. So after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, one of the first calls the Bush administration made was to President Musharraf. Though Musharraf later claimed the United States threatened to bomb Pakistan "back to the Stone Age" if he didn't cooperate with the U.S. war on terror, the Pakistani president made the best of it.

President George W. Bush has praised Musharraf's dedication to democracy and to the war on terror. Pakistan granted the United States access to air bases and staging areas for the war on Afghanistan and helped U.S. forces track and capture key al-Qaida terrorists. For these and other favors, Musharraf has collected more than $10 billion in U.S. aid, most of it military, since 2001.

But our loyal ally in Islamabad reverted to form. Gen. Musharraf - he holds the dual titles of president and head of the army - staged a coup against President Musharraf. He declared a state of emergency, in effect martial law. He replaced seven of the 17 judges on Pakistan's Supreme Court, including popular chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, arrested more than 500 key opposition leaders, cracked down on the nation's independent media and suspended elections scheduled for January.

Musharraf claimed that he took action because of the growing influence of extremists, but a far larger issue seems to be that the Supreme Court was preparing to rule that he couldn't run for re-election and still hold the post of general-in-chief of the army.

So he got rid of recalcitrant judges, thus ensuring that the military cronies he has installed throughout his government don't have to worry about losing power.

Musharraf's supporters claim he had at least tacit permission from the United States for his action, a charge hotly denied by the U.S. State Department. Having just brokered a deal with Musharraf that allowed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile to work for peaceful elections, it's not likely that the United States would have signed off on martial law.

Besides, upheaval in Pakistan is contrary to U.S. interests in every way - Osama bin Laden still is believed to be hiding in Pakistan's rugged North West territories; U.S. operations in Afghanistan still depend on Pakistani cooperation; Pakistan still is a nuclear state that shares a shaky border and a tortured history with India, another nuclear state; and the thought that Islamic extremists somehow might gain control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is too frightening to contemplate.

Indeed, for the United States the question is not whether to condemn Musharraf's self-imposed coup, but how strongly. The doctrine of realpolitik suggests that it is better to swallow hard and deal with tyrants than risk chaos, but the United States has leverage on Musharraf and should use it. To begin with, there's the fact that nearly all of the $7 billion in military aid granted Pakistan since 2001 has gone to build up its conventional military arsenal, not to hunt and fight terrorists. The general owes an accounting.

This military dictatorship does nothing to further Bush's "freedom agenda." A nation devoted to the rule of law can't look aside when judges and lawyers are deposed and arrested, when independent voices in the media are stifled, when free elections are postponed. Bush has leaned hard on Musharraf before. It's time to do it again.

Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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