Forty-eight hours after Pakistani voters overwhelmingly repudiated the Bush administrations "man in Islamabad," President Pervez Musharraf, Washington seemed uncertain about whether the election results marked a setback to U.S. strategic interests or an advance.
On the one hand, Washington will have to deal with a new government, some of whose likely leaders have publicly denounced U.S. policy in Pakistan. This makes administration officials who, as recently as last month, described Musharraf as "indispensable" to the "war on terror" uneasy.
Given the administrations staunch backing for Musharraf particularly over the past year as he dismissed the supreme court, altered the constitution, and cracked down against the secular opposition Mondays vote seemed to be almost as much a rebuff to Washington as to Musharraf himself.
On the other hand, the crushing defeat of Islamist parties, particularly in some key border areas, including the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), marks a major advance for U.S. hopes to contain the spread of the Taliban insurgency beyond the Frontier Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where it is based.
"[The Islamist parties] have been replaced by secular Pashtun nationalist parties who are hostile to the Taliban and who, at a minimum, will not allow the institutions of these provincial governments to be used by collaborators of the Taliban," Steve Coll, a South Asia expert and president of the New America Foundation, told an interviewer on public television Tuesday.
Moreover, if a functioning government willing to work with Washington can be quickly cobbled together by the two leading opposition parties the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) the "war on terror" could gain renewed legitimacy in the country. Many analysts here describe Pakistan as "the central front" in that war.
"The counter-terrorism effort that we are doing there is going to be much strengthened when it has the support of the people," said Wendy Chamberlin, who served as U.S. ambassador in Islamabad under both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "I think we are actually in a stronger position to work together [with Pakistan] to eliminate extremist elements in Pakistan."
While the Bush administration praised the vote and pledged to continue working with both Musharraf and any new government that emerges from ongoing negotiations between the two main opposition parties, independent voices called on Bush to drop his support for the former military chief in favor of a stronger embrace of the countrys democratic forces.
"The administration should urge its not-so-indispensable ally to step down," advised the Washington Post, in a reference to the insistence last month by a senior State Department official that Musharraf was "indispensable" to the pursuit of Washingtons "global war on terror."
"Mondays election means that [the Bush administration] can continue to transition from what is often described as a Musharraf policy to a broader Pakistani one," wrote the Wall Street Journals neoconservative editorial board. The newspaper also published a column by Hussein Haqqani an adviser to the late PPP leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto demanding that Musharraf "work out an honorable exit or a workable compromise with the opposition".
The Bush administration had tried to work out precisely such a compromise between Musharraf and the then-exiled Bhutto beginning late last summer. Musharrafs plunging popularity not only threatened Washingtons anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also the collapse of the Pakistani state in the face of a rapidly spreading indigenous Taliban movement closely tied to al Qaeda.
But that strategy fell apart amid growing evidence after Bhuttos return in October that Musharraf was trying to rig elections. It collapsed entirely in the aftermath of Bhuttos assassination in late December in Rawalpindi reportedly by a Taliban-linked suicide bomber.
In the wake of Mondays elections results, the Bush administration suggested that such a cohabitation might still be possible, although the strong showings of both the PPP and the PML-N which together will likely hold two thirds of the new parliaments seats would make it highly unlikely that PML-N leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, could be excluded from such an arrangement.
Unlike the de facto leader of the PPP Bhuttos husband Asif Ali Zardari Sharif, who was overthrown and exiled by Musharraf in a military coup detat in 1999, has called on Musharraf to resign.
"We are going to continue our work with President Musharraf and whatever that new government may be on goals of our national interest," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack Tuesday.
Most independent analysts here, however, believe that Washington should not insist with any new government that Musharraf retain his position. Indeed, most experts say the U.S. would be best served by letting Pakistans internal politics take their course.
"We should allow the process to play itself out," said Karl Inderfurth, who served as assistant secretary of state for South Asia under Clinton. "I dont believe that it is up to the United States to hold on to Musharraf."
While Musharraf may not be "indispensable" in Washingtons war on terror, close cooperation with the Pakistani military which came under the command of Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani after Musharraf became president last fall remains essential, according to Inderfurth.
"There can be no solution to whats taking place in Afghanistan today if we dont have Pakistans cooperation, and that means the Pakistani army, Inderfurth said.
Some observers credit Kayani who has issued a series of directives designed to drastically reduce the militarys role in the civil service and the economy with also ensuring that the election was carried out more cleanly than most analysts here and in Pakistan had expected.
The Pentagon, which is eager to sharply increase its aid and training programs for the Pakistani military and has even proposed to carry out joint operations in FATA clearly hopes that any civilian government that emerges from the elections will not try to impose any obstacles to enhanced cooperation.
But some experts believe that given Washingtons war on terrors widespread unpopularity in Pakistan such hopes may be in vain.
"There is this notion that if a coalition can be stitched together, this will strengthen the war on terror," said Rajan Menon, a South Asia expert at Lehigh University. "It will not, because the war has very, very little support among Pakistanis, regardless of social class, ethnic background, or religious commitment who feel that it has only spread the violence without translating into any tangible benefit for average Pakistanis.
"If you have a democratic government headed by the PPP or Sharif, it will have to reflect this popular sentiment," Menon said, noting that Zardari has already called for more dialogue with militant Islamists in the tribal areas than military confrontation.
But Chamberlin insisted that a new U.S. approach could help reverse negative perceptions of Washingtons war on terror. The new approach would feature sharply increased economic and other non-military aid, particularly to frontier regions; strong support for civil society and the justice system; and enhanced U.S. diplomatic involvement in negotiating a resolution of the long- running Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan.
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