Fallout From Mumbai

"This cannot be," Henry Kissinger once muttered in exasperation when an unexpectedly positive development occurred during a Democratic administration. "The wrong people are doing the right thing."

I have thought of the Kissinger anomaly in recent weeks while watching Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari confound the low expectations he inspired when he took charge of the most dangerous place on Earth in September.

Zardari is the corruption-tainted amateur politician who became president in the wake of the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, late last year. He seemed absolutely the wrong man to handle Pakistan's nuclear weapons and its collapsing economy or to deal with his country's support for Islamic terrorist networks.

But Zardari has tackled those problems with courage and pushed for greatly expanded trade and other business links with India. The Bush administration helped the Pakistani leader, in a perverse way, by making clear the limits of U.S. support for him without significant reform.

That initial progress now stands at risk. The multiple terrorist attacks in Mumbai could undo Zardari's initiatives and bring India and Pakistan back to war footing. Without citing proof, India's foreign minister is suggesting that "elements with links to Pakistan" carried out the butchery in India's financial capital.

But it has yet to be shown that Zardari's government had any role in the attacks. He -- and India -- have everything to lose by going back to confrontation. Even if undermining Zardari's outreach is not the goal of the assault on Mumbai, it could be the consequence.

Peacemakers are blessed in the Bible. But in turbulent areas such as the Middle East and South Asia, they are more frequently targeted. Gunmen cut down Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, the Palestinian envoy Said Hammami, Jordan's King Abdullah I and many others only when they sought peace, not when they made war.

We don't know if the Mumbai murderers were targeting Zardari by ricochet. But these attacks -- part of an upsurge in terrorist violence that has struck India's cities in the past two years -- carry the trademarks of extremist "fedayeen" groups based in Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Zardari has been poking at a snake with a stick. As part of his opening to India, he has scaled back support for Kashmiri separatists -- although Kashmir is the mobilizing issue used by the Pakistani military to maintain its domination of the country's politics and government budgets.

Three days before the Mumbai atrocities, Zardari disbanded the political wing of the military's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency, a conduit for support to Kashmiri, Afghan and other terror networks. Earlier he backed counterinsurgency operations in tribal areas infested by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and he is cooperating tacitly with U.S. Predator strikes against the Islamic extremists.

This is the same Zardari who spent more than a decade in Pakistani jails on corruption charges and allegedly displayed such rapacious designs on public funds while his wife was prime minister that he was nicknamed "Mr. 10 Percent."

But now he is scrambling to fill the national pocketbook to meet Pakistan's import bills and a government payroll that goes disproportionately to the country's bloated military. The same driving force -- the love of money -- pushes Zardari toward statesmanship and perhaps keeps the coup-prone army from overthrowing him.

A quiet shift in U.S. policy simultaneously contributes to Pakistani desperation and boldness. The Bush administration lavished billions on Pakistan while it was ruled by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose continued survival became President Bush's top goal. Poorly advised by the State Department and the CIA, Bush let the clever generals of Pakistan swindle him.

Zardari, however, is clearly expendable to Washington. He can be allowed to fail. And because of his reputation, no government can afford the political costs of being taken to the cleaners by Mr. 10 Percent.

When Zardari asked several countries to make an emergency $100 million transfer directly into the Pakistani central bank this month, the answer was uniformly no, diplomatic sources say. He was told that he would have to go to the International Monetary Fund, which gave Pakistan a $7.6 billion loan last week subject to intrusive monitoring and other conditions.

The incoming administration of Barack Obama should follow this same path. Financial aid to Pakistan must now be channeled multilaterally, ideally through nongovernmental organizations that practice strict accountability.

And Obama should not repeat his vague campaign statements that indicated he might swap assistance to Pakistan on Kashmir in return for help in finding Osama bin Laden. That would resume the self-defeating bribery and bartering that failed under Bush, and it would pour oil on a burning fire.

Jim Hoagland