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Well, This Is Awkward

How Pervez Musharraf's foolish return to Pakistan is creating problems for the United States.

Nearly five years ago, as the reign of Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf was nearing its end, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif stood before a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in Islamabad and thundered, "Is hanging only for politicians?" Then he added, for emphasis, ''These blood-sucking dictators must be held accountable!'' The crowd responded with a boisterous chant of "Hang him! Hang him! Hang him!"

At the time, Sharif's hostility toward Musharraf was one of the main reasons then-U.S. President George W. Bush's administration worried about the former prime minister's political resurgence. Would Sharif be content to settle scores only with Musharraf, the man, or would he extend his vengeance to Musharraf's military and its American backers as well? As it turned out, those questions went unanswered; Sharif's political power was eclipsed by the Pakistan People's Party led by Asif Ali Zardari, soon to be president, and Musharraf resigned from office and slipped out of the country before a legal noose could tighten around his neck.

That was then. Today, Musharraf lives under house arrest in his heavily fortified villa on the outskirts of Islamabad and faces multiple looming court cases that could result in treason charges, including for abetting the murder of political enemies, suspending the constitution and declaring a state of emergency, and illegally detaining judges. Whatever deluded political strategy led the general to return to Pakistan from exile in London and seek elected office has now been replaced by the same sort of cigar smoking and false bravado that too often characterized his time in power. On Tuesday, Pakistani guards found a car bomb apparently rigged to blow up Musharraf's convoy near his home. Musharraf is in deep trouble.

As everyone tried to warn him before he returned in March, Musharraf's time in Pakistani politics has passed. Now he is a threat to himself. But is he also a threat to Pakistan's political stability? To the U.S.-Pakistan relationship?

It is possible to see in Musharraf's sad fate "a milestone in Pakistan's fledgling democracy," as India scholar Sadanand Dhume put it. His arrest does demonstrate the newfound strength of the civilians, a healthy development for Pakistan's political culture that has for far too long been dominated by the generals.

But Pakistan's military was already humbled in 2007 when the lawyers first stood up to Musharraf's sacking of the Supreme Court's Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and again in 2008 when the general was forced from office. Over the past five years, the political stature of the generals has taken other serious hits, above all the one immediately after America's raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, which exposed Pakistan's top brass to unprecedented public criticism.

This is not to suggest that the army ever completely lost its grip on power, or that its generals (or top intelligence chiefs) didn't fight tooth and nail to defend and reassert their prerogatives. They did, and they still do.

It is to say, however, that this latest humbling of Musharraf looks more like a step back in time than a leap ahead to a bright new future. The once all-powerful tyrant is receiving another dose of comeuppance, but unfortunately not in the context of a noble "truth-and-reconciliation" exercise of the sort that other countries have used to bring closure to periods of civil conflict and crimes against the constitution or core human rights.

Instead, Musharraf will more likely be treated to justice-as-vengeance, delivered by two of his chief political foes, once again acting in an alliance that has served their mutual purposes for years. The chief justice, whom Musharraf tried to sack in 2007, will assert his authority from the bench at least until he retires at the end of 2013. And Sharif will have his chance too if, as is widely assumed, his party wins enough seats in national elections on May 11 to form a ruling coalition in Islamabad and reappoint him as the prime minister.

Fortunately for the United States, unlike Bush, President Barack Obama never had reason to associate with Musharraf. So Obama will probably lose little sleep if the ex-dictator is prosecuted, imprisoned, or even put to death for violating Pakistan's constitution. Even so, the choices that Pakistan's judiciary and future government make about how to deal with Musharraf could still have dangerous repercussions.

Musharraf was the leader of Pakistan's army. He was also its creation. Will the military stand idly by if its former leader is imprisoned or hanged? To be sure, there is little love for Musharraf in the ranks, and most of the officer corps probably views Musharraf as a liability best forgotten. Yet with Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani looking ahead to his own retirement later this year, at least he and his inner circle must fear that their retirement could be marred by legal battles similar to Musharraf's.

Musharraf's drama will only heighten those fears. Before Musharraf's ill-considered return to Pakistan, Sharif's party announced that it planned to avert a future civil-military crisis by picking the next army chief solely on the basis of seniority. By de-politicizing the pick, the logic ran, Sharif would demonstrate his desire to avoid the past tangles with the army that characterized his time in power in the 1990s, and to focus on his party's top priority: economic reform. If Sharif instead begins his time in office by forging ahead with a show trial of the former dictator, that conciliatory approach toward the military -- and with it the prospects for a reasonably stable civil-military relationship -- would suffer. A persistent political crisis would distract Pakistan from its many other pressing concerns, even if it might not immediately raise the specter of another military coup.

Cooperative relations with the United States would also face new hurdles. Musharraf's recent admission that he approved certain U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil, which raised eyebrows in the Pakistani press, ties his fate to Washington even though U.S. officials would surely wish otherwise. Part of Sharif's political and legal case against Musharraf could well hinge on the old dictator's selling of Pakistani sovereignty to the Americans in the prosecution of an unpopular war against terrorists. If so, Sharif will also be sending a message to the Obama administration about the limits he intends to place on future counterterrorism cooperation, including the use of U.S. drones in Pakistan's airspace. This is unlikely to go down well in a White House that still views drones as a crucially important tool in the fight against terrorism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.

In short, the Musharraf affair will be an early test of which direction Pakistan's civilian politicians and judiciary intend to take their country and its relations with America. If Musharraf's old foes can deliver justice instead of vengeance, all would benefit. So far, however, evidence suggests otherwise: This will be a messy, perhaps even bloody, business that will damage relationships (civil military and U.S.-Pakistan) that were already bound to be fraught. In that case, the best thing would be for a friendly neighbor like Turkey or, more likely, Saudi Arabia, to broker a deal that provides Musharraf a safe, comfortable retreat and exile of the sort Sharif himself enjoyed.

Either way, America's hands are -- and should remain -- tied. Washington's only plea to Islamabad should be in support of a fair and constitutional judicial process. For the United States, the only thing worse than watching the Musharraf debacle go down would be getting further implicated in his mess.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

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