November 29, 2007 -- BETTER late than never: Pa kistan's President Pervez Musharraf yesterday offi cially shed his military uniform and will act as a civilian head of state. He had promised to make the move as far back as 2004; his failure to do so had been a key theme in his critics' campaign against his rule.
Some critics have even pretended that Musharraf's uniform was the central question of Pakistani politics. But the problem isn't Musharraf's uniform. His switch to civilian clothes will simply transform another uniform-wearer, new chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, into a "strongman."
The reasons for the army's special place in Pakistani politics aren't hard to fathom. It is the only national institution that cuts across ethnic and regional barriers and offers Pakistanis from all sorts of backgrounds a place on the social ladder.
The traditional political parties are ultimately regional in their basic constituencies; the army appeals to all the four provinces that make up the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Moreover, the army (while taking pride in its role as the "Defender of the Faith") nurtures a basically secular-nationalist ideology - based on a vision of Pakistan as a distinct nation, rather than a mere chunk of the greater Muslim community (ummah).
Despite the undoubted attachment of most of its people to some form of electoral politics, Pakistan remains a nation built around an army. Paradoxically, even the citizens who most talk of democracy often look to the army as potential savior - a kind of deus ex machina that, at crucial moments, can intervene to bring the nation out of an impasse. In just over half a century as a state, Pakistan has experienced four military coups - each initially welcomed by a majority of the people.
By shedding his uniform, Musharraf has thrown the ball back to the political leaders - especially two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, and Muslim League leader Mian Nawaz Sharif.
For the last three weeks, both have been threatening a boycott of the general elections scheduled for January. My guess is that each will take part. Both spent the last eight years (in exile) campaigning against Musharraf's decision to bar them from national politics for a decade. Now that they no longer face such a ban, they'd be foolish, if not politically suicidal, to shun the polls.
Both parties have managed to retain parts of their respective constituencies, especially in Sind and Punjab. But eight years is a long time in politics, and there's every possibility that Pakistan may have moved beyond both former premiers. To seek high office, Bhutto and Sharif must acquire a new legitimacy - which can only come through elections.
Bhutto and Sharif also owe it to their own people to sheath the sword of boycott. To move Pakistan beyond the current dangerous phase, January's elections must be held with the widest participation and under the least controversial conditions possible. Now that all political parties and leaders are allowed to contest them, it would be foolish to turn the vote into an occasion for settling past scores.
For his part, Musharraf should release the last few remaining political prisoners taken at the start of the state of emergency and lift the ban on the one or two private news outlets still blacked out.
Pakistan today faces perhaps the strongest existential threat it has experienced since its inception in 1947. The terrorists operating in Swat (in the North-West Frontier province) can't seize power in Islamabad. But they can exhaust the army in a seemingly endless war, thus encouraging the revival of other divisive forces, especially in the vast desert of Baluchistan province.
A weakened army also would be unable to provide a minimum of law and order in the major cities - notably Karachi, where "sleeper" terrorist cells have mushroomed for years.
Musharraf's key word is "security," while Bhutto and Sharif prefer "freedom." But the two concepts are interdependent. There can be no freedom without security. The failure of Pakistan's leaders to understand that banal truism has been at the root of the nation's checkered experience over the last half-century.
Nawaz Sharif is right in saying that not everyone designated as terrorist by the global media should be regarded as such. But Sharif shouldn't offer a fig leaf to radical elements whose cynical appeal to religious sentiments draws the ignorant into the antechambers of terror.
For her part, Bhutto must remember that those who tried to kill her in Karachi a few weeks ago are the same people who have tried to assassinate Musharraf four times.
Whether they like it or not, Musharraf, Sharif and Bhutto are today in the same boat, facing the same storms.
Pakistan's forthcoming election has suddenly assumed a geostrategic importance beyond that country's actual importance. The prospect of a nuclear-armed state collapsing into chaos is one that few would contemplate with relish.
This election could, and should, produce a new national coalition that enjoys popular legitimacy and a clear mandate to pursue the war against terrorists to ultimate victory. What Pakistan needs is a united front against terror and a new government that can offer an alternative to both military rule and Taliban-style theocracy.
Pakistan needs a future-oriented election campaign, one capable of offering the people hope based on reality. Musharraf, Bhutto and Sharif form an informal triumvirate that can and must play a crucial role. This may be their last chance to make an historic contribution to their nation's future.
If they fail, they will all go down together. None can succeed by destroying the others - while holding clean, credible elections could strengthen all three in their respective positions.
The outside world should also offer a helping hand. The (British) Commonwealth, having had fun with gesture politics by suspending Pakistan's membership, should offer help in monitoring the elections, along with the European Union, the United States and possibly even the United Nations.
The message of Pakistan's leaders should be unity in diversity, unity against terror and diversity in competing visions for the nation's future.
In January, one of the biggest battles in the War on Terror will be fought in Pakistan. The whole world will be watching.