After Pakistan vote, U.S. eyes options

Some White House officials want to embrace victors in parliament; others don't want to abandon Musharraf.

After seven years of an "all Musharraf" Pakistan policy, the United States has an opportunity after recent elections to forge a new relationship with a key country in the war on terror.

Yet some quarters of the Bush administration would rather see President Pervez Musharraf hang on despite the drubbing he took from opposition parties, which could leave Washington on the outs with Pakistan's rising leaders, some analysts say. Even if the US does court the country's new civilian powers, a key challenge would loom: The new powers favor playing down the military fight against Pakistan's Al Qaeda and Taliban forces and sympathizers – a battle that remains the top American priority.

"We do have a real window to work with the new leadership," says Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

But Mr. Markey, until recently a top adviser on the administration's South Asia policies, sees a split in the administration between those who tout this as a moment "to get on the right side of history" and those who remain reluctant to abandon Mr Musharraf before it is clear he will be out – or before it's clear that the victors of parliamentary elections will be able to forge a stable government.

In an effort to allay concerns about their governing prospects, Pakistan's parliamentary victors held a joint meeting Wednesday as a show of strength – and to pressure Musharraf into quickly convening a parliamentary session. The Pakistan People's Party of slain leader Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the nationalist Awami National Party agreed to form a coalition to lead the country after trouncing Musharraf forces in elections Feb. 18.

The coalition parties, still shy of a two-thirds majority, are negotiating with a number of independent members of the new parliament with the goal of nailing down the votes required for impeachment proceedings against Musharraf

Unity meetings aside, no one foresees easy sailing for a coalition of opposition parties whose leaders have little love for one another. And the US got off on the wrong foot after the elections by expressing a desire to see an arrangement allowing Musharraf to remain in office, some analysts say. It's left the impression among Pakistanis that the US is sticking by its man, they add.

"We're trying to pretend Musharraf has a place in the new firmament, and I don't think he does," says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former Pakistan analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence Research.

"In Pakistan, it was read as a strategy to undermine the elections," adds Mr. Weinbaum, who was in Pakistan to observe the elections.

But even a quick embrace by the US of the parliamentary victors and an overt distancing from Musharraf would not have meant a smooth ride for the US. Polls of Pakistanis show a large majority do not consider the US war on Islamic extremists to be their war. A democratically elected government is expected to be even more sensitive to sovereignty issues and to questions about US military operations in the country.

For example, the new leaders could be tempted to sign a "separate peace" with militants in Pakistan's northwest provinces along the border with Afghanistan, says Robert Grenier, a former head of the Counter Terrorism Center at the Central Intelligence Agency. That might yield a "respite" from the bombings and other violence Pakistan has experienced over the past year, he says, but it would not be sustainable.

What's needed, Mr. Grenier says, is a long-term counterinsurgency effort giving priority to improving services and economic conditions and building a government presence in isolated and lawless areas. A plan reflecting that thinking was proposed earlier this week by Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, who is calling for nonmilitary aid to Pakistan to be tripled to $1.5 billion. Foreseeing a decade-long project, Senator Biden says the program should emphasize education, employment, and health.

The problem for the US, Grenier says, is that successful counterinsurgency work is a long process, as Biden's call for a long project points up. And that portends a conflict between short-term military action against militants and long-term programs that many consider more fruitful but can be easily set back by unpopular use of force. "We're asking [the Pakistanis] to square the circle, to undertake these two contradictory things at the same time," says Grenier, now a managing director at Kroll, a global-security consulting firm.

Markey says the postelection moment is "an opportunity to strike a different balance" between military and civilian assistance, but Weinbaum says the years of a US focus on Musharraf are not going to make that easy.

"It makes sense," he says, "but it's very late, and the Pakistanis are very cynical about anything we do at this point."

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