Tough balancing act for US in Pakistan

NEWS ANALYSIS

THE United States is walking a tight rope in Pakistan.

It has to shore up an increasingly unpopular leader while pushing for democratic reforms in the country.

But like a house of cards, everything could unravel later this week if Pakistan’s Supreme Court rules against President Pervez Musharraf’s plans to be re-elected.

Even as General Musharraf struggles to contain resurgent secular political rivals and militant Islamic violence, the greatest threat to his rule comes from the apex court.

In recent weeks, it has become highly politicised and increasingly hostile to Gen Musharraf. Sensitive to the popular pro-democracy movement, it has criticised the election commission’s decision to change the rules to let him run.

Observers expect the court to either rule against the President outright or issue a technical ruling that allows him to seek another term but attaches caveats and conditions that could weaken his position.

“Musharraf’s fate rests largely with the Supreme Court,” said Ms Lisa Curtis, a former South Asia analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The situation is extremely delicate and Washington needs to take care not to be seen as supporting Musharraf against Pakistani popular will. At the same time, it wants to avoid a situation in which Al-Qaeda-backed extremists are able to take advantage of the political uncertainty and gain a greater foothold in the country.”

Few countries have as much at stake as the US, which counts the general as a chief ally in the war on terror.

Since the Sept 11 attacks, he has ended public support for the Taleban and Al-Qaeda, and used his extensive intelligence services to round up terrorist suspects and feed reliable information to their American counterparts.

There have been missteps, however.

His attempt to broker a political solution with tribes in Pakistan’s border region – where Osama bin Laden is believed to be in hiding – backfired by giving Al-Qaeda more room to regroup.

Despite such reservations, the US has been standing by Gen Musharraf, offering cautious praise, and providing his regime with billions of dollars in aid.

American support, however, has played into the hands of his political rivals and Islamic leaders who portray him as a lackey of President George W. Bush.

The Bush administration, facing mounting pressure from Congress and human rights groups over its relationship with the Pakistani leader, is sensitive to criticism that it emphasises expedience over democracy.

There has been growing pressure here for a change in strategy, one that makes return to civilian rule in Pakistan a priority.

Consensus has been growing in Washington that a coalition between the general and former premier Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan’s People Party – one of the country’s most popular parties – is the best way to transition to democracy.

Writing in the Foreign Affairs, Mr Daniel Markey, a former State Department official, noted: “Washington’s choice is not between Musharraf and democracy, nor is it between Musharraf and radical militants. Rather, the choice is between an army chief in a coalition with progressives and moderates, and an army chief in league with other less appealing partners.”

Indeed, the US has been quietly encouraging Gen Musharraf to separate the positions of president and army chief – something he has already agreed to do if he is re-elected.

The thinking here is that a new power-sharing arrangement – harking back to the politics of the 1990s – will have greater legitimacy and be able to bring the Pakistani people along in the fight against terrorism.

But Pakistan’s Supreme Court might well throw a spanner in the works.

“The situation is extremely delicate and Washington needs to take care not to be seen as supporting Musharraf against Pakistani popular will.”
MS LISA CURTIS, a former South Asia analyst with the CIA

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