A Crisis Foretold
The Washington Post

In the past few days, warnings about two critical threats from Pakistan have been sounded repeatedly in Washington. First, al-Qaeda is rapidly growing stronger in the de facto sanctuary it enjoys in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas, and is close to acquiring the capability to launch new attacks on the United States. Second, reputable polls show that Pakistanis will vote overwhelmingly against President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections Monday — but the government plans to rig the balloting to prevent that outcome, at the risk of triggering massive protests and violence.

In short, thanks to Mr. Musharraf, the danger of another Sept. 11 is real, as is a violent and destabilizing confrontation between Pakistan’s army and the moderate democratic forces that ought to be joining it in the fight against al-Qaeda. Yet the Bush administration continues to publicly insist that Mr. Musharraf is “indispensable” to Pakistan — a stubborn and illogical position that is serving only to heighten the twin dangers.

The administration itself is reporting the Pakistani threat against the U.S. homeland. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified to Congress last week that al-Qaeda was acquiring “the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.,” by bringing Western recruits to its Pakistani bases for training. It has been reported that Mr. McConnell and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden traveled to Pakistan last month to propose that U.S. intelligence and military personnel join Pakistanis in operations against al-Qaeda — only to be rebuffed by Mr. Musharraf.

Similarly, appeals by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for Mr. Musharraf to permit fair elections have been ineffective. The former general has neither released the judges he imprisoned last fall nor removed controls that prevent media from fully reporting on the elections. Functionaries of the political party he sponsors continue to predict that it will finish first in the parliamentary vote — a forecast that differs starkly, and ominously, from a poll released this week by the International Republican Institute. That poll showed only 14 percent support for Mr. Musharraf’s party, compared with 50 percent for the People’s Party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher recently acknowledged at a congressional hearing that the administration does not expect fair elections, only “as fair an election as possible.” Asked what the United States would do if a fraudulent result provoked violence and destabilization, he responded, “I don’t think I’m able to give you a clear answer right now as to what exactly we would do.” He did, however, offer a clear answer about whether he regarded Mr. Musharraf as “indispensable”: “I do, sir.”

Perhaps Mr. Musharraf will reverse himself, limit manipulation of the balloting and accept defeat. Yet by its own account, the Bush administration is unprepared to cope with the imminent danger of destabilization in a country that holds nuclear weapons as well as terrorist training camps. That will remain the case as long as it insists on allegiance to Mr. Musharraf as the starting point of its policy.

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