Under pressure from President Bush, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced Thursday that he would hold elections for Parliament by Feb. 15. His government has said it will end a state of emergency within a month. But the general's security forces continue to detain thousands of activists from the country's secular political parties, judiciary and human rights groups, while violently breaking up protests and keeping independent television stations off the air. Despite his promises to Washington and back-channel negotiations with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Musharraf has not altered the course he embarked on last weekend when he suspended the constitution. He still intends to dictate his own continuance in power and to curtail the influence of the country's moderate political elite - the judges, journalists, human rights activists and secular politicians who ought to be his army's allies in a war against Islamic extremists.
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Mr. Bush has hesitated to withdraw U.S. support for Mr. Musharraf; his administration is understandably concerned about the destabilization of a nuclear-armed Muslim country. The Pentagon places a high priority on helping the Pakistani army combat a growing insurgency by the Taliban, al-Qaida and their allies. Yet Mr. Musharraf's insistence on fighting rather than working with the country's civilian political center dooms the battle against extremism. After his first coup, in 1999, the general also promised elections: The result was a blatantly rigged ballot that excluded Ms. Bhutto and other centrist leaders and boosted militant Islamic parties. It is likely that the election he now promises would be similarly manipulated. Though his government pledges to lift emergency rule, it clearly does not intend to restore the rule of law, which would mean reinstating the Supreme Court judges whom Mr. Musharraf has illegally placed under arrest.
The only way to preserve U.S. interests and the cause of moderation in Pakistan is to eliminate the obstacle of Mr. Musharraf's desperate and destructive hold on power. Mr. Bush must now insist on the second demand he made in Thursday's phone call, which is that Mr. Musharraf retire from the army. His likely successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, is a pro-Western moderate who supports the U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency program. The next army leader, rather than Mr. Musharraf, should be encouraged by the United States to lead negotiations with the Pakistani moderate opposition - and not just Ms. Bhutto. U.S. military aid should be linked to a restoration of the constitution and reinstatement of the judges who have been removed from their posts. If a restored Supreme Court rules that Mr. Musharraf was legally elected president last month, he could retain that position; otherwise he should be obliged to retire to private life. Genuinely free parliamentary elections are essential, with the participation of all of Pakistan's established leaders and parties.
Pakistan's crisis unquestionably poses serious risks to U.S. national security. But the Bush administration's practice of clinging to Mr. Musharraf is increasing rather than lessening the danger. Pakistan can defeat Muslim extremism only through the empowerment of its moderate secular civil society with the full support of the army and the United States. Mr. Musharraf's actions in the past week have destroyed any chance that he could play a leading role in that process.