Bush Bets the Farm on Musharraf

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday declared emergency rule, fired the country’s chief justice, and suspended the constitution, effectively giving him absolute power in a country many U.S. experts warn is spinning out of control.

Despite its unhappiness with the recent developments, it appears the George W. Bush administration, which once lauded the Pakistani leader as an ally in the "war on terror," will continue to provide financial backing for counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA).

"I just want to be clear that the United States has made clear that it does not support extra-constitutional measures, because those measures would take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a statement while en route to Tel Aviv, Israel, to advance the White House’s upcoming Annapolis Peace Conference.

"And whatever happens, we will be urging a quick return to a constitutional order, we will be urging that the commitment to hold free and fair elections be kept, and we’ll be urging calm on all the parties."

A day earlier, Rice said a significant portion of U.S. aid "is directly related to the counterterrorism mission." While the aid program to Islamabad must be reviewed in the wake of the Musharraf move, "I would be very surprised if anyone wants the president to ignore or set aside our concerns about terrorism," she said, according to a report in the Associated Press.

On Monday, President Bush made his first public comments since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency over the weekend, asking the Pakistani leader to hold elections and relinquish his army post "as soon as possible."

Appearing on national television after midnight on Saturday, Musharraf at times spoke in English, saying he wanted to address the United States and the West, according to a report in the Washington Post.

"I would kindly ask you to understand the criticality of the environment inside Pakistan and around Pakistan," he said. "Inaction at the moment is suicide for Pakistan, and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide."

Pakistan’s recent turn to martial law echoes the bloodless coup that brought Musharraf to power in 1999, but the most recent occasion underscores the extent to which the Pakistani leader finds himself in an untenable position of juggling multiple and often contradictory interests.

"Musharraf’s recent coup against his own government – and that was what it was – was in good part a result of American pressure on him to hold free and fair elections as well as the actions of a Supreme Court that suddenly began to challenge the military’s dominant position and a dramatic increase in terrorist violence directed against the Pakistani military itself," wrote Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asian security at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, in a briefing paper on the organization’s site.

Musharraf’s problems have been compounded by the reemergence of former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to Pakistani public life. Bhutto flew back to Karachi from Dubai, where she was visiting family at the time of the decree, and was reportedly greeted by throngs of supporters at the airport.

"Unless General Musharraf reverses the course, it will very difficult to have fair elections," she told Sky News television by telephone. "I agree with him that we are facing a political crisis, but I believe the problem is dictatorship. I don’t believe the solution is dictatorship," she said. "The extremists need a dictatorship, and a dictatorship needs extremists."

According to Cohen, Islamabad has been playing a "double game" with its participation in the "war on terror," with its intelligence services supporting the Taliban, while reluctantly going after al-Qaeda forces embedded in FATA.

"The failure to round up the Taliban leadership was a matter of state policy: the Pakistan army still regards India as its major threat, and the Taliban are used to counterbalance Indian influence in Afghanistan," he said. "As for al-Qaeda, the Pakistan army is prepared to engage in counterinsurgency warfare within its own borders; no wonder several U.S. senators have stated that the U.S. ought to go in to the FATA if Pakistan cannot, and round up the known al-Qaeda (and Taliban) leadership."

Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former National Security Council member during the Jimmy Carter administration, wrote on the Washington Post Web site that the recent travails of Musharraf reminded him a great deal of the problems and ultimate downfall of Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

"The ultimate reason for the U.S. policy failure at the time of the Iranian revolution was the fact that the U.S. had placed enormous trust and responsibility on the person of the shah of Iran," he said. "I see the U.S. locked in much the same kind of policy vise that bedeviled the U.S. in Iran. We have bet the farm on one man – in this case Pervez Musharraf – and we have no fallback position, no alternative strategy in the event that does not work."

The editors of the right-leaning National Review magazine were far less forgiving than the Bush administration. "When it comes to being ‘our SOB,’ Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has the ‘SOB’ part down. We just wish we could have more confidence in the ‘our,’" they wrote in a piece entitled "State of Emergency."

"The U.S. should make clear to Musharraf that it is willing to forgive a lot, so long as the Pakistani government shows a commitment to the anti-Islamist campaign that has long been lacking. If Musharraf is determined to govern for now as a dictator, we should at least expect him to be an effective dictator in our interests."