Straying Partner Leaves White House in a Lurch
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Helene Cooper
The New York Times
Sunday 04 November 2007
Washington - For more than five months the United States has been trying to orchestrate a political transition in Pakistan that would manage to somehow keep Gen. Pervez Musharraf in power without making a mockery of President Bush's promotion of democracy in the Muslim world.
On Saturday, those carefully laid plans fell apart spectacularly. Now the White House is stuck in wait-and-see mode, with limited options and a lack of clarity about the way forward.
General Musharraf's move to seize emergency powers and abandon the Constitution left Bush administration officials close to their nightmare: an American-backed military dictator who is risking civil instability in a country with nuclear weapons and an increasingly alienated public.
Mr. Bush entered a delicate dance with Pakistan immediately after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when General Musharraf pledged his cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda, whose top leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding out in the mountainous border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The United States has given Pakistan more than $10 billion in aid, mostly to the military, since 2001. Now, if the state of emergency drags on, the administration will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to cut off that aid and risk undermining Pakistan's efforts to pursue terrorists - a move the White House believes could endanger the security of the United States.
Adm. William J. Fallon, the senior American military commander in the Middle East, told General Musharraf and his top generals in Islamabad on Friday that he would put that aid at risk if he seized emergency powers.
But after the declaration on Saturday, there was no immediate action by the administration to accompany the tough talk, as officials monitored developments in Pakistan. Inside the White House the hope is that the state of emergency will be short-lived and that General Musharraf will fulfill his promise to abandon his post as Army chief of staff and hold elections by Jan. 15.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in the Middle East, called Mr. Musharraf's move "highly regrettable," while her spokesman, Sean D. McCormack, said the United States was "deeply disturbed."
Teresita Schaffer, an expert on Pakistan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called General Musharraf's action "a big embarrassment" for the administration. But she said there was not much the United States could do.
"There's going to be a lot of visible wringing of hands, and urging Musharraf to declare his intentions," she said. "But I don't really see any alternative to continuing to work with him. They can't just decide they're going to blow off the whole country of Pakistan, because it sits right next to Afghanistan, where there are some 26,000 U.S. and NATO troops."
The hand-wringing began even before General Musharraf imposed military rule. Ms. Rice said she has had several conversations with General Musharraf in the past few weeks - the last one two days ago - in which she appealed to him not to declare emergency powers. The American ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, had also been exhorting General Musharraf and his top deputies against making that step, Ms. Rice said.
"We were clear that we did not support it," Ms. Rice said, speaking to reporters aboard a flight from Istanbul to Israel, where she is traveling for regional talks. "We were clear that we didn't support it because it would take Pakistan away from the path of democratic rule."
But even as she criticized General Musharraf's power grab, Ms. Rice stopped short of outright condemnation of General Musharraf himself, even going so far as to credit him for doing "a lot" - in the past - toward preparing Pakistan for what she called a "path to democratic rule."
That seeming contradiction highlights the quandary in which the Bush administration now finds itself.
There has long been a deep fear within the administration, particularly among intelligence officials, that an imperfect General Musharraf is better for American interests than an unknown in a volatile country that is central to the administration's fight against terrorism. In recent months the White House had been hoping that a power-sharing alliance between General Musharraf and Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, would help the general cling to power while putting a democratic face on his regime.
Now, experts predict that the United States will be watching Pakistan closely in the coming days to see how hard General Musharraf cracks down on his opponents - and whether opposition political leaders, journalists and scholars are imprisoned. Much of the attention will be on Ms. Bhutto, who strongly condemned the emergency declaration and quickly cut short a visit to Dubai to return to Pakistan during the crisis.
Officials will be watching to see whether Pakistan's fractured opposition, including Ms. Bhutto and her political party can unite and pose a serious challenge to General Musharraf. They will also be watching the reaction of the military, which has been demoralized by a spate of suicide bombings against military targets.
Whatever happens, experts say that General Musharraf's decision was not good news for the Bush administration Even if Pakistan does get back on the path to democracy, Saturday's action will likely tarnish the Pakistani leader, as well as the legitimacy of any election organized by his government.
Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the current situation could easily plunge Pakistan into chaos, leading to an increase in violence by Islamic fundamentalists or provoking demonstrations by opposition political parties.
"You could have chaos in the street, or a situation where it would be suicidal for Bhutto to try to participate in the process," he said, adding, "Either of those scenarios puts the U.S. in a very difficult position."
Ginger Thompson contributed reporting.