WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Yousuf Raza Gilani, prime minister of Pakistan, will lunch with George W. Bush in the White House on Monday, July 28. That will not be merely another of the president's routine meetings with foreign leaders. As Pakistan's democratically elected government and U.S. diplomats understand, the lunch symbolizes a turn away from Washington's attachment to military rule under the discredited Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Bush could be the last to appreciate the symbol. On May 30, he stunned Pakistani political circles with a personal telephone call to Musharraf advocating "a continuing role" for him as president of Pakistan. Musharraf, even below Bush in public opinion polls at 9 percent, had been elected president by a lame-duck Parliament just before its members were defeated in Feb. 18 elections. When Bush phoned boosting Musharraf, members of the new government were demanding the general's impeachment or resignation.
Clinging to a rejected strongman typifies a persistent practice in U.S. foreign policy. Bush has stuck to Musharraf despite the military's failure under his command to vigorously combat Islamist terrorists on the Afghanistan frontier. However reluctantly, Bush is turning to a new government, which last week launched a military attack in the Khyber tribal region, to be followed by more such thrusts in coordination with U.S.-Afghan forces on the other side of the border.
This was the military plan sketched for me in New York a year ago by Benazir Bhutto as she prepared to return to Pakistan after eight years in exile following her second ouster as prime minister in a military coup. The U.S. State Department brokered a shaky power-sharing arrangement between Musharraf and Bhutto, but Musharraf forced his sham election as president and Bhutto was assassinated soon after her return.
Fearing instability, the Bush administration publicly avowed Musharraf's continuing importance to Pakistan despite his crushing electoral defeat. Bush's May 30 call to Musharraf was a step too far, causing even State Department shrugs of disbelief. At issue is overall U.S. global strategy. Ousting Musharraf, the White House has feared, would signal Bush would next abandon Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq.
The White House invitation to Bhutto's political ally Gilani, therefore, represents a new mindset. Nevertheless, Musharraf's hanging on as president represents a useless anachronism. The Nation, a conservative Pakistani newspaper, last Thursday asserted: "The country badly needs a head of state, who devotes full time to the improvement of the situation in (the tribal areas,) instead of spending time in palace intrigues." The News, a liberal newspaper, on the same day derided Musharraf's self-styled "enlightened moderation," asserting that "even as the U.S. declared him a key ally against terror, militancy grew everywhere."
That same News editorial complained "no one is ready to defend" the city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan "against a possible onslaught by the militant militias that stand ranged all around it." But the joint U.S.-Pakistan military attack last week in the Khyber tribal area saved the historic town. That contradicted claims by Musharraf, his generals and friends in the U.S. government that an elected civilian regime would be slackers in the war against terror.
On the contrary, as Bhutto predicted to me last year, the civilian government is focusing the country's army against Islamist militants instead of archrival India. Only recently, when an unmanned Predator aircraft had a terrorist target in its sights, the Pakistani military refused to pull the trigger. Now, more raids in lawless tribal regions are planned. While the country's generals previously concentrated U.S. aid on conventional armaments to prepare for war with India, money from Washington now flows into counter-guerilla activities.
Pakistani opposition to the army's rule was not just a utopian desire for democracy or even fear that their country would become a large, nuclear-armed replica of Myanmar, ruled by a hereditary caste of ignorant, intransigent officers. The real problem with the military dictatorship, obsessed over the Indian menace, was its lack of interest about George W. Bush's war of terror. When he sits down to lunch with Prime Minister Gilani July 28, the president should remember that his friend Musharraf in 2006 cut a deal with tribal leaders providing sanctuary for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.