Pakistan has been at the center of democratic presidential debates, with Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois creating a stir by saying that, as president, he'd consider unilateral military action inside the country to go after Al Qaeda.
The country appears to have lost what little control it had over provinces bordering parts of Afghanistan, and now, President Pervez Musharraf is considering a state of emergency that allies say is designed to control terrorism, but critics allege is an attempt to hold on to power.
A close ally of President Musharraf denied rumors that the president, who came to power in a 1999 coup, is planning to impose a state of emergency in the country to deal with a rising spate of attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Reuters reports.
"There is no possibility of an emergency," Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the president of Pakistan Muslim League [Musharraf's party], told reporters at parliament.
Private television channels and newspapers had reported that Musharraf was poised to take a step that would probably delay elections due by the turn of the year and could result in restrictions on rights of assembly and place curbs on the media.
Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said the measure could be warranted by the deteriorating security situation in tribal areas and North West Frontier Province and suggestions by U.S. politicians that America should be prepared to strike inside Pakistani territory if it possessed actionable intelligence on al Qaeda or Taliban targets.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain says the talk over the state of emergency appears to be an effort by the president to head off elections and stay in power.
As speculation swirled about a state of emergency, critics said the security concerns were secondary to Gen. Musharraf's principal concern: maintaining his grip on power against an independent-minded and newly emboldened supreme court.
But opposition leaders warned that the move would only deepen the country's political crisis. Benazir Bhutto, the exiled opposition leader with whom he recently held power-sharing talks, issued a muted denunciation.
One western diplomat said Musharraf may try to have emergency rule mandated by a vote of parliament, which was elected in a rigged vote in 2002 and is dominated by his supporters.
The Associated Press reports that there appear to be rifts among the president's allies over the matter, saying that Mr. Azim refused to rule out imposing an emergency. He said that talk among some US presidential hopefuls such as Senator Obama that America should consider unilateral strikes inside Pakistan to go after alleged Al Qaeda members has left the country on edge.
Azim … said talk from the United States about the possibility of U.S. military action against al-Qaida in Pakistan "has started alarm bells ringing and has upset the Pakistani public."
Musharraf, a key ally in Washington's fight against terrorism, has suffered dwindling support and his standing has been badly shaken by a failed bid to oust the country's chief justice … a state of emergency would give him sweeping powers, including the ability to restrict people's freedom to move, rally, and engage in political activities and assert their fundamental rights through the courts.
Political analyst Talat Masood said that if Musharraf imposed a state of emergency it would be an act of desperation that would doubtless be challenged in the courts, and could trigger a public backlash against the president.
The talk of the emergency comes as US intelligence services have said that Al Qaeda has regrouped inside the country's lawless frontier provinces and other reports have stated that a plan to go after Al Qaeda leaders inside the country early in the war in Afghanistan was scotched at Musharraf's request. In a forum for democratic presidential candidates sponsored by the AFL-CIO on Tuesday, Obama continued to insist that the US should consider unilateral military action, Bloomberg reports.
The discussion of Obama's remarks on Pakistan, though, provoked sharp exchanges. [Christopher] Dodd, 63, a senator from Connecticut, called Obama's comments about Pakistan "highly irresponsible."
"Words mean something," said Dodd, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "General Musharraf is no Thomas Jefferson," but "he's the only thing that stands between us and an Islamic state," he said.
Obama responded that it is "common sense" for the U.S. to militarily pursue terrorists there if necessary. "If we have actionable intelligence on al-Qaeda operatives, including bin Laden, and President Musharraf can't act, then we should."
Writing in Pakistan's Daily Times, Naeem Salik, a former general in Pakistan's Army, says the country could respond to any American unilateral action by limiting US supply lines into Afghanistan.
Most Americans do not realize that the US and NATO forces are operating in Afghanistan – a land locked country – because of Pakistani largesse. If Pakistan withdraws the transit facility through Karachi port and the transportation of fuel and other logistic supplies through its territory, the operation in Afghanistan would come to a grinding halt in less than a week.
In case of any US misadventure in Pakistan the government would not be in a position to resist the public pressure to withdraw these facilities along with the suspension of Afghan transit trade which would bring that country to its knees within a week.
Writing in The Dawn, Pakistan's largest English language newspaper, opinion writer Gwynne Dyer says the current turmoil in Pakistan isn't necessarily all bad.
The military dictator who has ruled Pakistan since 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, is a living incarnation of the phrase "one-bullet regime": he has already survived four assassination attempts. More than 200 Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died in terrorist attacks since the Red Mosque incident, and the alarmists are predicting civil war and Islamist take-over.
[But] there is a good chance that this crisis could end in restoration of civilian democracy in Pakistan: that is how all three previous bouts of military rule ended. The fanatics and the extremists dominate the sparsely populated areas along the Afghan frontier because the population there is identical to the Pashtuns across the border who are the main base of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they have been radicalised by 28 years of foreign occupation and civil war in that country. But the vast majority of Pakistanis live down in the flat, fertile lands along the rivers, and what they want is not martyrdom but peace, justice and prosperity.
Meanwhile, Musharraf says talk of unilateral military action inside his country only hurts efforts to contain terror groups, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Musharraf's criticism of such comments came during a meeting in the port city of Karachi with visiting Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and the new American ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson.
"The president pointed out that certain recent U.S. statements were counterproductive to the close cooperation and coordination between the two countries in combating the threat of terrorism," said a statement released by the Foreign Office.
The Pakistani leader, it said, "emphasized that only Pakistan's security forces, which were fully capable of dealing with any situation, would take counter-terrorism action inside Pakistani territory."