As long as Musharraf is in power, Pakistan will not be stable

The west has often regarded the civilian dimension of Pakistani politics as a hindrance to its secur

Over the past decade one country has caused more alarm in the west than any other over its weapons of mass destruction. It is neither North Korea, nor Iraq, nor even Iran. Pakistan is the concern. That is why the decision was taken to tolerate General Pervez Musharraf when he seized power in a military coup in 1999. After 9/11, Pakistan became the front line in the so-called "war on terror", and its leader became George W Bush's main partner. Musharraf promised to do what he could to root out al-Qaeda camps on the border with Afghanistan, to turn in senior figures from that organisation, and to keep Islamists at bay within his own country. In return, billions of dollars were poured into Pakistan. Most of the cash went to the military.

Throughout this time, the army, and particularly the intelligence service, the ISI, maintained strong links with Islamist groups, while the father of the country's bomb, A Q Khan, confessed to selling nuclear technology to Pyongyang. Khan was pardoned by Musharraf, and - with a nod from London and Washington - little more was said.

Musharraf was indulged, but not trusted. In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, he might have been a son of a bitch, but at least he was America's son of a bitch. He was encouraged to crack down on militants in the increasingly lawless northern region of Waziristan and to smash an Islamist protest at the Red Mosque in Islamabad.

Amid the crackdowns, Musharraf's refusal to countenance the reinstatement of civilian rule put the relationship with the US under strain. He was finally prevailed upon to reach an accommodation with his erstwhile enemies, notably Benazir Bhutto. A disreputable deal was done, in which the scion of Pakistan's best-known family would return from exile; all corruption investigations against her and her husband would be dropped. The constitution would be changed to allow Bhutto to return as prime minister for a third time, while Musharraf would remain president.

The assassination of Bhutto on 27 December destroyed these best-laid plans. As Ziauddin Sardar reports on page 18, the ISI was probably responsible for her death. Less clear is Musharraf's connivance in it. Paradoxically, the less he may have had to do with it, the more that shows him to be a prisoner of the security services.

With Pakistan in chaos, the US, the UK, India and the other states that stand to lose most are close to despair. Their options are limited. They continue to support the elections, but may now feel obliged to back Nawaz Sharif, the only remaining opposition leader with national stature. Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in the 1999 coup, is much less of a friend of Washington than Bhutto was.

In any case, it is Musharraf who will pull the strings. That is why, as Andrew Stephen notes on page 22, western policy has failed so spectacularly. The US and UK are still quite happy to throw in their lot with autocrats, as long as they pursue similar interests. That could be Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the Saudi royal family (feted only weeks ago in London), or, fleetingly, the torturers and murderers of states such as Uzbekistan (as long as they provided military bases for the Afghan war).

Most Pakistanis believe that Washington is content to work with a pliant military puppet. Rather than support the democratic revival of civil society, as seen in the lawyers' movement and a reasonably critical press, the US wanted to use Bhutto as a democratic fig leaf. It has often regarded the civilian dimension of Pakistani politics as a hindrance to its security priorities.

Now the west must change tack. Musharraf should be encouraged to step down. The various political parties should be coaxed into forming a government of national unity, while the full independence of the judiciary should be restored (and the lawyers and judges released from jail).

Even where military means may be required, such as to prevent the Talibanisation of Waziristan, Musharraf is the person least likely to succeed. In ethical terms, he has been a disaster. In pragmatic terms, he has disappointed. Pakistan will never enjoy democracy - or stability - under his rule.

Women know their place

Norwegian companies are having a nervous New Year as they wait to find out how many of them will be shut down for failing to achieve a quota for women in the boardroom. Under a 2003 act, 40 per cent of directors on the boards of the country's public limited companies must be female. By the end of last year, however, a quarter of Norway's plcs had not reached that target.

One can imagine the dismay with which the City would greet such a regulation. London's financial district may have moved on from the days when bowler-hatted gentlemen joked about "the monstrous regiment of women" over lunch at the (men-only) clubs of St James's. But City lawsuits over sex discrimination frequently show that the corporate world contains plenty of unreconstructed males with certain views about the station to which women should aspire. Only 11 per cent of British directors are female, and politics also remains an overwhelmingly male arena: just one in five MPs is a woman.

The idea for Norway's law came from an unlikely source - a male, middle-aged, former Conservative minister. "From my time in business, I saw how board members were picked," explained Ansgar Gabrielsen. "They go hunting and fishing together." If David Cameron wants to make "real changes" maybe he, too, should champion this bold suggestion on our shores. Any upset caused to the Old Tory huntin' and fishin' set would be an added bonus.

Just recently Google has brought out with a great deal of alterations and improvements to their prominent search system, including Googles Knowledge Graph Release. Read More...

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot