For outsiders, as for Pakistanis, the choice is between worse and the worst: a militantly Islamic, 165-million strong, nuclear-armed failed state at the strategic crossroads of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. President Pervez Musharraf has been triangulated ever more tightly by the jihadists, Islamists and judiciary. Pakistan's fate has rested on the triple A interplay between Allah, the army and America.

Pakistan was an artificial creation carved out of British India with mass bloodshed. Its founding ideology of Islam was unable to hold the country together as Bangladesh became independent, and has proved incapable of uniting the various clans and tribes into one cohesive nation. Enmity with India gave the military the alibi to establish ascendancy over all state affairs and also explains the third enduring force of Pakistani politics. The emotional parity with India could not have been sustained without an alliance with the U.S. and later China - which also allowed Pakistan to develop its nuclear and missile programs.

In the 1980s, Saudi financing and American arms and training built up the mujahedeen as a potent force to bleed the Soviets in Afghanistan. Over time, this battle-hardened jihadist army, including Osama bin Laden, exported terror in common cause with Islamist struggles all over the world.

The Saudi connection led to a spurt of madrassas spewing hatred against Jew, Christian and Hindu with equal venom. By the end of the last century, the epicentre of international terrorism had effectively shifted to Afghanistan-Pakistan. Domestically, civilian governments alternated with military ones but also competed with each other to rob the national treasury. The 9/11 attacks had deep Pakistani and Saudi connections. But George Bush lashed out at Iraq in a disastrous distraction from the real enemy - al-Qaeda - and the real theatre of war - Afghanistan. He also negated his own analysis of the threats that had intensified as a result of America's coddling of dictators in a triumph of short-term expediency over long-term vision.

The result is everyone's worst nightmare coming ever closer to reality in Pakistan. Both Benazir Bhutto, possibly the most popular politician in Pakistan today, and Nawaz Sharif, the last legally elected leader, have warned of the perils of backing a duplicitous General Musharraf. Washington, having invested so heavily in him, is seen as Gen. Musharraf's helper against the people: Pakistan has one of the staunchest anti-U.S. images in the world. Washington never confronted the core of his duplicity. If he eliminated the threat of Islamists, his utility to Washington and the fear of the alternative would disappear. If he failed to show any progress, he would be toppled. So he has played both ends against the middle brilliantly.

But that meant that the policy contradictions ripened and threatened to burst. The Islamists survived, regrouped, built up their base and launched more frequent raids across the border in Afghanistan but also deep into the heart of Pakistan itself, culminating in the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July. To appease an increasingly restive Washington, Gen. Musharraf cracked down on the Islamists harder and entered into power-sharing talks with Ms. Benazir - which only intensified their hatred of him as America's stooge. Cornered by an increasingly assertive judiciary, he sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry but was forced to back down in the face of a revolt by the legal profession and international pressure. The general sentiment across Pakistan in recent weeks has been that Gen. Musharraf was on his last legs, and this threatened to become a self-fulfilling analysis.

True to his commando instincts, Gen. Musharraf has struck back, declaring a state of emergency, suspending the constitution, dismissing the chief justice and putting him under house arrest, and jailing political opponents. The justification is saving the nation from its many enemies within and without. Even the most naive and gullible are unlikely to swallow this. Such last-gasp efforts may delay the inevitable but are rarely successful. Pakistan has slowly but surely descended into the failed-state syndrome where the Koran and Kalashnikov culture reign supreme. A strange alliance of liberals and radicals may ensue and prove as combustible as it did in toppling the Shah of Iran in 1979.

Strong and sustained international pressure - stick followed by carrots - will be needed. An unstable, volatile, radicalized and nuclear-armed Pakistan is in no one's interest.

Gen. Musharraf is a problem. He has to go. That must be followed by building the institutions of good governance that are mutually reinforcing and resilient. Alleged incompatibility of Islam with democratic good governance is nonsense and given the lie in neighbouring India (as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey). The soldiers belong in the barracks. Putting them back there would be the start to ending Pakistan's long nightmare. Keeping them there would constitute a solution.

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