Bush's Support For Musharraf Tested by Crisis: WSJ

Bush's Support For Musharraf Tested by Crisis
Pakistan's Unrest Fuels Calls for U.S. to Engage Opponents of Regime
Wall Street Journal: June 5, 2007

The growing political crisis in Pakistan is testing the Bush administration's unconditional support for Pakistan's strongman president, amid mounting popular unrest and the re-emergence of opposition leaders seeking to end his eight-year military rule.

U.S. officials acknowledge that President Pervez Musharraf is increasingly vulnerable, but they expect him to weather the storm, perhaps by winning a new five-year presidential term from Pakistan's parliament. Even so, there are growing calls in Washington for the U.S. to begin distancing itself from the Pakistani leader and more directly engaging prominent opponents of his regime. Pakistan's future has also emerged as a hot-button issue in the U.S. presidential campaign among Democratic candidates critical of President Bush's foreign policy.

Gen. Musharraf set off the crisis three months ago when he suspended Pakistan's top judge, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is believed to oppose constitutional changes that would allow Gen. Musharraf to serve another term as president without relinquishing his post as army chief of staff. Outrage over the suspension has eroded Gen. Musharraf's support in what had been considered his principal constituencies: Pakistan's business community and middle class.

Experts and politicians in both the U.S. and Pakistan say the Bush administration's continued embrace of Gen. Musharraf risks damaging Washington's long-term influence in a country that is viewed as the linchpin in the U.S. war on terrorism and the fight against nuclear proliferation. It is also considered a key to regional stability. In addition to promoting a secular society, Gen. Musharraf's government has pursued a peace initiative with rival nuclear power India over the long-disputed territory of Kashmir.

But growing anti-Musharraf sentiment among both progressive secular Pakistanis and conservative Islamists has been increasingly translating into anti-Americanism in recent months, experts and policy makers say. And they fear that a long or violent political transition in Pakistan could play into the hands of political extremists.

"It looks like we're watching a last act [for Musharraf], but it could be a long last act," says Teresita Schaffer, a former senior State Department official who recently returned from Pakistan.

Many South Asia experts believe the Bush administration should be stepping up preparations for a post-Musharraf era. A key step, they say, would be for Washington to reach out to leading Pakistani opposition figures, such as historical rivals Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both former prime ministers. Their secular political parties are expected to win the majority of seats in parliamentary elections expected this fall. Both Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif, from whom Gen. Musharraf seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup, are currently living in exile and face corruption charges back in Pakistan.

Ms. Bhutto hopes to return to Pakistan later this year to help her Pakistan People's Party take part in the parliamentary elections. There is also speculation that she may cut a deal with Gen. Musharraf that could allow the two to share power as prime minister and president. But current and former U.S. officials say the White House has played no role in seeking to broker such a deal, nor have there been any high-level contacts with Ms. Bhutto or Mr. Sharif.

Indeed, many U.S. officials are skeptical that the former Pakistani leaders could play much of a role in building up Pakistan's civil institutions and economy. "What would Benazir's return really do to advance things? Probably not much," says Daniel Markey, who until February held the South Asia portfolio in the State Department's Policy Planning staff. Mr. Markey stresses, though, that Pakistan's return to civilian rule would likely increase Islamabad's political credibility.

The current political crisis has stoked rioting in a number of Pakistani cities. Violence in Karachi, Pakistan's financial center, left 40 people dead last month. There are also growing indications that the Pakistani military has begun cracking down on the media and political dissent. On Friday, the army outlawed political protests in Islamabad, the capital.

In the U.S., even Democrats, who have been highly critical of President Bush's handling of foreign policy, are nervous about what might happen if Gen. Musharraf were to be forced out.

At a Democratic presidential debate Sunday night, one questioner asked: "How do you reconcile our security interests with Pakistan with our interest in promoting liberal democracy...?"

The party's front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, acknowledged that Gen. Musharraf "has solidified his rule and become quite antidemocratic...." But she quickly added: "At the same time, we depend upon him to control the tribal areas, out of which come the resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda fighters."

A growing number of South Asia experts, both inside and outside the U.S. government, however, are challenging the idea that Pakistan would fall apart without Gen. Musharraf. "In the past, there was a sense that there's a seething mass of anti-American masses," said Mr. Markey, the former State Department official. "What we've seen over time is that some things are wrong about this story. ...They might not like the U.S. much, but they don't want Taliban rule" either.

Gen. Musharraf is no stranger to crises. Al Qaeda-linked assassins made two attempts on his life in 2003. And foreign fighters and ethnic insurgents are at war with Pakistan's security forces in the country's tribal areas and the resource-rich province of Baluchistan. But growing opposition from Pakistan's professional class poses a new kind of threat.

As the political crisis has intensified, the Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon have held briefings with dozens of Pakistan experts to discuss potential post-Musharraf scenarios, according to participants. But U.S. officials say such exercises are routine and don't indicate any expectations in Washington that Gen. Musharraf's time is running short.

Members of Pakistan's top military command have visited Washington in recent weeks, including Gen. Ehsan ul Haq, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who is viewed as a potential player in Pakistan's political transition. But again, administration officials described these visits as routine.

"Last year, there were a lot of discussions, or what-if meetings," about Gen. Musharraf's future, said a senior State Department official. "But Musharraf is likely to be part of the post-Musharraf era....He's a player in the transition and will likely lead it."

As part of the transition, many South Asia watchers believe the U.S. government should increase financial aid to Pakistan outside military channels. They say that Washington historically has distributed twice as much assistance to Pakistani military governments as to civilian ones. Even today, they say, the majority of the U.S. government's aid to Pakistan supports counterterrorism operations, rather than programs aimed at alleviating poverty or strengthening civilian institutions.

"The U.S. embrace of Pakistan only brings gains for Pakistan's military," says Sherry Rehman, a member of parliament from the Pakistan People's Party and president of the party's Central Policy Planning office.

U.S. officials say the next six months will be crucial to Gen. Musharraf's future. He is seeking to win a new five-year term as president from the current national parliament, while continuing on as army chief of staff. Opposition parties, led by Ms. Bhutto's party, argue that only a newly elected parliament can chose the next president, and that Gen. Musharraf would need to shed his uniform if elected.

U.S. officials are hoping Pakistan's military ruler can reach an agreement with his political opponents that will allow them to share power in a new popularly elected government. But the growing fear inside Pakistan is that Gen. Musharraf will either seek to force his re-election through the current parliament or run an election that is widely viewed as rigged. That scenario, many Pakistan analysts say, runs the risk of stoking more political upheaval and potentially leading the military to take an even more direct role in the country.

--Zahid Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this article.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com


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