Is Pervez Musharraf a failing military dictator or a burgeoning democrat? Should the US back or ditch him?

The radical view, outlined by Sandy Berger and Bruce Riedel in the International Herald Tribune, proposes to ditch him and push for “free and fair elections." In this perfect world, a secular civilian government with legitimacy to tackle religious extremism would emerge, saving America’s face. But this grossly misrepresents the ground reality. Free and fair elections would likely produce a deeply divided polity, where religious forces would likely hold the balance of power between Benazir Bhutto’s secular Pakistan Peoples Party and Musharraf’s conservative ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML). In the absence of Musharraf, the PML would ally with the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA), an alliance of five bitterly anti-American religious parties. The first casualty of a right-wing coalition government would be Washington’s war on terror. In the political paralysis that would follow, the Pakistani army would prefer to retreat than fight “its own people" in the border provinces.

Other analysts contend that the US should not back an emerging Bhutto-Musharraf alliance, as the former is corrupt and the latter unpopular. That leaves former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The deeply conservative politician has always ruled in alliance with the mullahs. To oppose Musharraf, he has set up the All Parties Democratic Movement, comprising all the religious and anti-US parties in the country. Like Bhutto, Sharif has dodged corruption charges. When in power, he suppressed the free press with a vengeance. He is hardly likely to prove Pakistan’s long-lost democratic saviour and champion of the war on religious extremism.

That leaves Musharraf, who is quickly consolidating his power base and strengthening his position by rupturing the MMA’s grip on the volatile North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. His influence is growing in the Taliban-Al Qaeda-infested tribal badlands of Waziristan.

Musharraf’s alliance with Bhutto isn’t perfect, by any means. The twice-sacked former prime minister struck a deal to have her corruption charges dropped in exchange for supporting Musharraf’s bid for the presidency. Musharraf remains deeply unpopular with middle-class Pakistanis—he is seen as a US puppet and an anti-Islamic secularist. Bhutto is still quite popular, but that may not matter: Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban-Al Qaeda commander in Waziristan, says he will welcome her with suicide bombers “because she is an American agent."

The Bush administration can’t ask Musharraf to “do more" in the war against radical Islam when he is so unpopular at home, nor can it ask him to hold free and fair elections immediately and quit the scene. The best bet for Pakistan and its friends abroad would be a liberal-secular civil-military alliance that leads to a stable and moderate government. Sometimes, that takes more patience than Washington is willing to extend.

Edited excerpts fromThe Wall Street Journal. Najam Sethi is editor of The Friday Times and Daily Times in Pakistan. Comment at