Musharraf on his way out?

In which your fearless correspondent pretends to know something about Pakistani politics. Our man in Islamabad lost big yesterday — not quite so big as to give Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s parties the two-thirds majority in parliament they’d need to impeach him but big enough that that might be do-able if they can bring in just 30 or so MPs from the smaller factions. Time to warm up the helicopter for a Nixonian denouement?

Two politicians close to Mr. Musharraf have said in the past week that the president was well aware of the drift in the country against him and they suggested that he would not remain in office if the new government was in direct opposition to him. “He does not have the fire in the belly for another fight,” said one member of his party. He added that Mr. Musharraf was building a house for himself in Islamabad and would be ready soon to move.

A Pakistan expert at CFR thinks it’s a matter of time. His one hope lies in the fact that Bhutto’s and Sharif’s parties traditionally have hated each other, but given the anti-Musharraf sentiment evident in the results — his own party was nearly wiped out — maybe they’re going to put the old differences aside. A deal in the works?

Mr. Sharif has been reported to agree to the Peoples Party [i.e., Bhutto’s party] assuming the post of prime minister in exchange for three things: impeachment proceedings against Mr. Musharraf; the reinstatement of the dismissed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and other judges; and the appointment of a top lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, as prime minister.

Ahsan led the movement to have Pakistan’s chief justice reinstated after Musharraf fired him last year; he got a spell under house arrest for his trouble. That would take care of the premiership, but what about a replacement for Musharraf as president? Anyone else under house arrest available to step up and take control of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal? Why, yes:

Sharif has even said he’s considered naming as president rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, seen as a hero in Pakistan for developing a nuclear bomb and in Washington as a villain for selling nuclear secrets to North Korea and other countries. Monday’s contest — which Musharraf had called “the mother of all elections” — is supposed to nudge Pakistan toward full-fledged democracy, nearly nine years after former army chief Musharraf took power.

If you think the country’s unstable now, install the world’s foremost nuclear black marketeer as commander in chief and see how the U.S. reacts.

Any good news from all of this? Indeed — the Islamists were routed worse than Musharraf was, including in the tribal areas. Superficially that means yesterday was a victory for “moderate” and pro-democratic forces, but the posture of Bhutto and Sharif especially towards jihadis, as I understand it, has always been more opportunistic than principled, so don’t be surprised if the new boss is the same as the old boss when it comes to taking the fight to the Afghan border. That means more unilateral strikes by the United States against jihadi targets without the Pakistani government’s permission — a policy which, it turns out, has already been put into practice, with glowing results. Exit question: How much are we going to miss Musharraf? Exit answer: Not as much as you think.

“The United States has gotten into a pattern where it sends a high-level delegation over to beat Musharraf up, and then you find that within a week or two a high-value target has been identified. Then he ignores us for a while until we send over another high-level delegation,” Clarke said.