Amid growing polarization between President Gen.
Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan's civilian opposition forces, US hopes of salvaging
a power-sharing accord that would marry the military dictator to former Prime
Minister Benazir Bhutto are fading fast.
Indeed, Bhutto's public break with the military dictator enunciated,
among other places, in a Washington Post column Wednesday that called
on Musharraf to resign as both president and as army chief will make
it much harder to patch together the deal that Washington had tried so hard
to work out over the last several months, according to most analysts here.
That deal called for Musharraf to retain his disputed presidency on condition
that he first permit Bhutto to return from exile and then hold elections that
would give her a third premiership in exchange for his resignation as chief
of the army, presumably in favor of his number two, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani,
a Washington favorite.
Kayani, routinely touted in the press here as a "moderate" and "pro-western"
officer, has also been depicted as part of a group of military reformers who,
according to the New York Times, "are widely believed to be eager
to pull the army out of politics and focus its attention purely on securing
the country," presumably from radical, Taliban-related Islamists who have
both consolidated and expanded their control of the frontier areas along the
Afghan border since Musharraf declared his state of emergency 10 days ago.
But with Bhutto put under house arrest in Lahore and thousands of other opposition
politicians, activists, lawyers, and human rights defenders in detention around
the country, it now appears that the deal is off, and Washington's options have
become both narrower and the course of events much more risky.
The stakes could not be higher. Not only is the Pakistani Army's cooperation
considered essential to stabilizing Afghanistan against the Taliban and defeating
al-Qaeda, but the prospect that the worsening political crisis could fracture
the military along regional lines is now looming as a worrisome possibility.
Pakistan is believed to have some 50 nuclear weapons scattered around the country.
In addition, the Bush administration's failure to break with Musharraf and
declare unequivocal support for the civilian opposition's demands risks both
further alienating the vast majority of the more than 160 million Pakistanis
whose image of the US had fallen to unprecedented levels before the current
crisis, and exposing Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Muslim world
already a source of understandable skepticism as a total fraud.
"If anyone in the Muslim world still believed in the Bush administration's
historic promise to support democracy over political expedience, those hopes
are being shattered with the crisis unfolding in Pakistan," said Mohamad
Bazzi, a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
To try to redress the situation, the administration of President George W.
Bush is sending Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Islamabad as his
special envoy Thursday for talks with Musharraf, as well as meetings with other
senior political figures, probably including Bhutto herself.
Negroponte's primary goal, according to insiders, is to see whether "Humpty-Dumpty
can be put back together again," according to one administration official
who asked not to be identified in a reference to the original power-sharing
To that end, Negroponte will point to threats by Congress that would cut off
nearly two billion dollars in mostly military aid it has appropriated for Pakistan
each year since the "global war on terror" after 9/11, unless Musharraf
rescinds the emergency, sheds his uniform, and permits free and fair elections
to go forward, among other conditions. In addition, Congress could suspend the
sales of long-sought F-16 fighter jets.
But many analysts here believe that will not be sufficient to bring Musharraf
around. If anything, the Pakistani leader appears to have become increasingly
confident that he can ride out the storm, particularly given the continuing
mildness of western reaction, including Negroponte's own assertion in Congressional
testimony last week that the Pakistani leader was an "indispensable"
ally in the war on terrorism.
And, even if Musharraf bends to Washington's threats, according to Pakistan
specialists here, it's increasingly doubtful that Bhutto, who has been reaching
out in recent days to other opposition parties to forge a united democratic
front, would go along at this point, lest she appear to be selling out her new
partners, as well as undermining whatever personal credibility she retains.
Just two days ago, she told the Financial Times unequivocally that there
was "no chance" of negotiations with Musharraf being revived.
One point of leverage against Musharraf that could be more effective, according
to one expert, Selig Harrison at the Center for International Policy (CIP) here,
would be suspending the 100 million dollars a month that the US Defense Department
provides directly to the Pakistani military in counterterrorism funding, a significant
portion of which is distributed in cash and used to ensure loyalty to the chain
But, led by the Pentagon, the administration appears dead-set against putting
that aid into play, fearing not only that it would reduce Pakistan's already-tepid
and sporadic cooperation with the US against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but also
strengthen Islamist elements within the military who have long resented and
even resisted serving Washington's priorities.
"If we use that leverage, we could move Musharraf to do many things, but
I have no reason to believe we'll use it," said Harrison, who noted that
even the International Crisis Group (ICG), several of whose board members who
also served in top US ambassadorial posts called Tuesday in a Post column
for a military aid cutoff to Pakistan, exempted the counter-terrorist program."Frankly,
without using that leverage, I think it's too late to do anything very effective,"
Harrison told IPS.
The administration's Plan B, which some analysts believe is already underway,
is to "reach out" to other generals more responsive to US interests,
starting with Kayani, to press Musharraf to step down and take action of their
own, if he fails to do so.
In that respect, the choice of Negroponte as chief envoy is particularly ironic.
During his tenure as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, Negroponte aligned
himself unconditionally with its brutal armed forces chief, Gen. Gustavo Álvarez
Martínez, who was so responsive to US strategy in the region that his
own commanders forcibly ousted him from office. Negroponte, who apparently was
unaware of the barracks plot, was recalled a short time later.
(Inter Press Service)