America's Pakistan dilemma
The US struggles to increase pressure on terrorists and avert Musharraf's downfall.
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Still, the options for US policy in Pakistan after six years of unquestioned support for Musharraf range from "worse to worst," Mr. Cohen says. He says no alternative will be able to deliver a positive result – a stable, democratic Pakistan where the Islamist extremist fringes have withered away – in the short term.Skip to next paragraph
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Two military options, both unlikely
Militarily, the US has two options, says Mr. Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution. One would be to seize or kill Mr. bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, in what military officials call a "snatch and grab" operation. But Riedel says the intelligence for such a move must be reliable and timely. "The shelf life of that kind of intelligence is generally measured in hours, not days or weeks," he adds.
A second option, one Riedel says is getting an increased airing in Washington, is for the US military to take out Al Qaeda and Taliban camps in remote tribal areas – with or without Musharraf's accord. But the US doesn't have the forces for such an operation, especially after the "surge" of troops to Iraq, says Riedel. He and other experts say such an action would probably cause more problems than it solves.
"There can be no wait-and-see approach by the US in terms of Pakistan, but neither can there be any unilateral action like a covert operation against these areas," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs. "That would be the kiss of death for any broad move against the extremists, and it would inflame the already strong anti-American feelings in the country."
The US should take advantage of an existing trilateral initiative among NATO countries, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to address the threat of terrorism from Pakistani territory, says Mr. Inderfurth, now specializing in international relations at George Washington University.
More broadly, however, the US must work – fast – to pressure Musharraf into opening up Pakistan's political system and tapping into its shallow but existing democratic roots, experts say. "Musharraf simply won't be able to mount an effective campaign against the extremists without broad civilian support," says Cohen.
And for that, he adds, the military leader will have to move to a system of power- sharing that encompasses Pakistan's political parties.
Recent speculation suggested former prime minister Benazir Bhutto might join Musharraf in a coalition government focused on tackling extremism. But any moves toward a power-sharing deal may have been halted by Friday's surprise ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which reinstated the chief justice Musharraf had suspended in March.
The ruling, which Musharraf announced he would respect, could embolden the judiciary to challenge Musharraf's plans to secure a new presidential mandate from the outgoing parliament.
Inderfurth says Musharraf's commitment to holding elections is positive, but the quest to remain president and military chief is "bad news." He says, however, that the US must keep in mind that the 60-year-old nation "is in the fight of its life" against Islamist extremism.
Musharraf and the country's moderate political forces must find a way to come together, he says, "because if they don't the problems identified in the National Intelligence Estimate will pale in comparison to what could follow." The international community "should very much want Musharraf to prevail in this," he adds.
Others say Musharraf may be part of the preferred avenue for Pakistan, but only if that includes a clipping of the general's power and a broadening of the political power base. The problem for the US, Riedel says, will be finding a balance between encouraging democratic forces and abetting Musharraf's demise.
"Having backed Musharraf to the hilt for six years, the slightest hint of a turn by the US could set off his collapse," Riedel says.