President Bush continues to praise Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf as a valued ally in the war on terror. At the same time, US officials are pressuring the military leader over his declaration of emergency law – though some Pakistanis call it pressure with kid gloves – as if he were the only acceptable game in Islamabad.
Yet even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argues for patience toward General Musharraf, some US officials and South Asia experts are doing what they say the US has failed to do: envision and prepare for a post-Musharraf Pakistan.
"Washington's approach to Pakistan has always been that the devil we know is better than the devil we don't know. But there is every reason to believe that with Musharraf and Pakistan, that is not the case," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "Musharraf has blinded Washington over and over again with a mastery of blackmail, but in the two areas we worry most about – nuclear proliferation and Islamist extremism – there are alternatives that are just as good, if not better."
Captivated by Pakistan's status as a nuclear power, linchpin in the US-led war on terror, and the presumed home of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the US has treated the military leader as if he were the last stand before nuclear Armageddon or a new triumph for Islamist extremism, many experts say. Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999.
A Pakistan with Gen. Ashfak Kayani as military chief, for example, and a civilian government elected by the Pakistani people, would be at least as effective in opposing the extremists' rise and perhaps better at safeguarding Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Many observers believe General Kayani is Musharraf's likely successor as head of the armed forces.
Mr. Harrison says the US has enough leverage over Musharraf to effect a desirable political transition if it wanted – through at least a threatened cutoff of the huge monthly military assistance the country receives for fighting Islamist extremists. But he sees little prospect of that happening, given the Bush administration's continued public support for Musharraf and "more than 54 years of US policy of blindly supporting Pakistan's dictators."
But envisioning a Pakistan that is just as reliable a US ally without Musharraf is not the hard part, it's more the pitfalls of a short-term transition period that are troubling, says Daniel Markey, a recent State Department Policy Planning Staff official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"Most people agree there are a number of ways this could work out where in six months we are in no worse shape, and perhaps even in better conditions, than we are now," says Mr. Markey, a South Asia expert. One reason it's possible to envision better conditions from the US perspective: A Pakistan free of political turmoil, and with the public satisfied that democratrization is proceeding, is more likely to support US policies in the region.
"The problem is, the interim period of instability and doubts about who's in charge, suggest at least the possibility of a tumultuousness that for Washington is problematic," Markey says. One of the key determining factors would be how long such a transition period lasted.
"If after 24 hours, you had a completed reshuffling of the Army deck and clarity about who was in charge, that's one thing," Markey says. "It's something else if the transition dragged on and fed doubts about who held the power and ultimately Pakistan's stability."
The harder issue, Markey, adds, is that completing a transfer in military power would, by itself, do nothing to resolve the political turmoil Pakistan faces.
"Again, it's the kind of transition that's the question," Markey says. If smooth, and with Musharraf's cooperation and that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, then it could still come out a plus for the US. "But if it's a more tumultuous transition," Markey adds, "then the Army could be forced under pressure to yield to far less helpful political masters than Musharraf has been working with so far."
A less favorable alternative for the US, Markey, says, would be the rise of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
"That wouldn't mean an extremist Pakistan, but they just aren't as keen on working that closely with the US, and they don't see the world through Washington's lenses," says Markey.
Washington's best option is still for Musharraf to rescind his declaration of emergency law and to proceed with the political power-sharing deal he had been working out with former Prime Minister Bhutto, Mr. Harrison says. While still a lesser-of-evils solution, it gets Pakistan on to civilian rule and some satisfaction for protesting sectors of Pakistani society.
On Sunday, Bhutto said she welcomed Musharraf's announcement that elections would be held before Jan. 9, but many Pakistani observers say she can't really deal with Musharraf until he lifts martial law and the Constitution is restored. Cooperating with Musharraf would effectively be political suicide in the eyes of the opposition. There are doubts, experts say, that she would play the part of Musharraf's legitimizer.
As of Monday, Bhutto said that she will proceed with plans for a protest march from Lahore to Islamabad on Tuesday. But some Pakistani observers say that such rallies are a form of political theater designed to maintain the public's interest. Bhutto's announcement, some say, means she will be locked up for the day, as she was during a similar rally last week.
Another factor standing in the way of US backing for a real political transition in Pakistan could be private deals the US may have made with Musharraf over US actions vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Iran.
"This is just speculation," Harrison says, "but it's not hard to imagine some kind of agreements that might have been made with Musharraf about intelligence or special operations" in Iran or concerning the Islamist communities in Pakistan's northern frontier areas "that are influencing our actions in this crisis."