It's Not Martial Law, it's Just Planned Democracy

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On Sunday, General Parvez Musharraf addressed the nation he now heads following Thursday's coup intending to, as they say in Congress, revise and extend his remarks. "This is not martial law," Musharraf told the country, but rather "another path toward democracy." Further, he made the surprising announcement that he would pull back troops from Pakistan's tense border with India and seek talks with his nuclear neighbor. India, which ordered its troops on high alert immediately following the coup, has so far reacted cautiously to the news. After two days of vainly casting about for a credible civilian administration to do his bidding, Musharraf had in fact declared martial law late Thursday, making himself Pakistan's effective head of state. He had been reluctant to assume the reins of government, and with good reason. The International Monetary Fund Pakistan's economic life-support system on Wednesday suspended discussions over new loans, and warned that there'd be no more money until democracy was restored. That message was underscored by strong warnings from President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the U.S. couldn't do business with a military junta.

The general's problem is that his coup, which was provoked by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to fire him, is unconstitutional, and restoring civilian government would put the generals at risk of prosecution. His failure to produce a credible civilian administration leaves Washington and its allies facing an uncomfortable choice: Does the West opt to isolate and pressurize an unpredictable military junta in a newly nuclear power that exists in a perpetual state of low-key hostilities with its nearest neighbor; or does it work with General Musharraf in the hope that he can be coaxed back onto the democratic path. Tradition points to the latter course. After all, Washington worked closely with the last military government, led by General Zia ul-Haq, which ceded to civilian rule in 1988, and successive U.S. administrations have recognized the Pakistani military as a source of stability in a fractious and volatile nation. Still, a martial law declaration by any other name is still martial law, and this dashes hopes that General Musharraf could parlay the widespread opposition to the government he ousted into a new political consensus. Which means that turbulence in Pakistan may trouble Washington for some time yet.