Why U.S. sticks by Musharraf

The Bush administration is not likely to break with the Pakistani general, given his backing in the fight against Islamic extremism.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

America's safety and the demands of the war on terror trump immediate concerns about democracy in Pakistan.

That Bush administration perspective explains why the US – as disturbed as it may be by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency – is expected to refrain from steps that could weaken Pakistan's leader. President Bush has regarded Mr. Musharraf as a major ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.

So while US officials talk about reviewing the billions of dollars in mostly military assistance Pakistan receives from the US, a break with Musharraf over his authoritarian turn is seen as improbable. Anything more than intensified diplomacy – calling for a restoration of rights and for holding scheduled elections as soon as possible – is unlikely, at least over the short term.

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Although most analysts agree that the US options for influencing Musharraf are limited, they also say the time has come for a new Pakistan policy that is less Musharraf-centric. The military ruler, they say, may not last long at the helm of a nuclear power in a volatile region. In addition, it is increasingly clear that US interests in a stable Pakistan, free of Al Qaeda's influence, have not advanced under Musharraf.

"We have to start by acknowledging that we don't have that many options in this relationship. And we should take our history with Pakistan into account, which shows that any sticks we've wielded or sanctions we've imposed haven't had direct impact on Pakistan's actions," says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary for South Asian affairs who is now at George Washington University. "But we need to be engaged with the Pakistanis in this time of crisis. Our action should be nuanced and broad-based, and we should be consulting the international community on this."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated Monday the US view that "the best path for Pakistan is to quickly return to a constitutional path and then to hold elections." That came after earlier comments she made – echoed by the White House – that no US action would be taken to jeopardize the Pakistani military's battle with Al Qaeda insurgents and their supporters in remote tribal territories.

"I would be very surprised if anyone wants [President Bush] to ignore or set aside our concerns about terrorism," Secretary Rice said shortly after Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday.

A White House spokesman had a similar comment: "We're obviously not going to do anything that will undermine the war on terror," said Gordon Johndroe.

Rice says Washington will review its aid to Pakistan, which has received about $11 billion in US assistance since it became a close ally in fighting terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As it tries to influence Musharraf, the United States may seek to pressure the Pakistani military – and indeed is already showing signs of doing so.

The US Embassy said that a US-Pakistan Defense Consultative Group meeting to be held in Islamabad this week has been postponed – awaiting "conditions [that] are more conducive to achieve the important objectives of the meeting."

Such signals to the Pakistani military could indirectly influence Musharraf to step back from actions that he claims are directed at Islamic militants but have come across more as a personal power grab.

"The most important actions the US can take are those that will catch the attention of the Pakistani military, which has never liked being at loggerheads with the Americans," says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani government official now at Boston University's Center for International Relations.

The US military may be focused on Pakistan's fight with extremists, he says, but the country's rising political instability does not necessarily mean US military officials will favor a kid-glove approach to Musharraf. "They will see that if Musharraf is going to commit more troops to controlling demonstrators and riots in the streets, that will mean less attention to the war on terror," says Mr. Haqqani.

Pentagon officials say that US review of aid to Pakistan includes current funding and what has been proposed under the 2008 budget request from the Department of State. That includes $300 million in foreign military financing, $2 million for international military education and training, and another $32 million for international narcotics and law-enforcement programs.

Also, as part of the foreign military-sales program, Congress has approved the sale of 32 F-16 jet fighters, half of which are new. The aid package also includes about $10 million for the nonproliferation antiterrorism and demining and related programs, or NADR.

All such funding requests are through the Department of State.

"It's fair to say that we are reviewing all of our assistance programs," said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman at the Pentagon Monday.

Some observers have drawn attention to the differences in approach of the Bush administration to recent antidemocratic measures by the military junta in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Musharraf's moves. Bush was quick to publicly condemn Burma's leaders and to push for international sanctions. He was initially silent on Pakistan, but was expected to make a comment Monday afternoon. The responses suggest both the difference in the two country's strategic importance to the US and the opportunity the US may have for influencing Pakistan, Haqqani says.

"Of course Pakistan has a central role in the international confrontation with terrorism that was not a factor in addressing Burma," he says. "But it is also true that Burma's military rulers are quite ready to dismiss outside pressures, but that is not the case with Pakistan's rulers or the people in general. Most sectors of Pakistani society wish to avoid isolation from the rest of the world."

Still, Mr. Inderfurth says almost any punitive action the US might consider against Musharraf could easily backfire and end up hurting US interests.

Pointing to the sale of 32 F-16s that Congress has approved, Inderfurth says, "To cut off that [sale] might seem like a logical place to show our displeasure – until you consider that such a move would do more to jeopardize the broad Pakistani public's estimation of the US than to undermine the Pakistani military."

Noting that the long-sought F-16s have become a public symbol of how "the US is not a true friend of Pakistan," Inderfurth says, "It's just another example of how complicated this crucial relationship is, and how much attention it's going to require over the coming months."

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