For six years, the United States has staunchly supported Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, choosing to back a military leader seen as a strong ally in the “war on terror” rather than push the general more forcefully for democratic reforms.
But the risks associated with that strategy have become increasingly apparent in recent months, as Al Qaeda and the Taliban have gained strength in Pakistan’s northwest frontier area despite billions of dollars in military aid to Musharraf’s government since the Sept. 11 attacks.
That funding is Washington’s main source of leverage over Musharraf. But officials said that it would be risky for the United States to withhold such aid to pressure Musharraf to reverse the emergency powers he decreed Saturday, acknowledging that the United States is dependent on Pakistan and can’t afford to alienate its leadership.
“The problem is we have a war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan is a coalition partner,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Pakistan policy matters who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and it’s hard to have a good outcome there if Pakistan is not cooperating.”
Largely for that reason, officials said, the United States is likely to continue to scold Musharraf but not impose significant sanctions.
The aim will be “to indicate our displeasure and to try to reduce the extent to which we become the target of the kind of ire of Pakistanis that is primarily directed at Musharraf himself,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA counter-terrorism official and senior analyst on South Asia.
A Pentagon spokesman said Saturday that there would be no immediate linkage between the emergency powers proclamation and the U.S. aid.
“The declaration does not impact our military support for Pakistan,” spokesman Geoff Morrell said, adding that the “stakes were high” and that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was closely monitoring the situation as he travels to China on the first leg of a weeklong trip to Asia.
Morrell said that military officials had not threatened Musharraf with a loss of aid, despite reports that Adm. William J. Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, had warned Musharraf during a meeting Friday in Pakistan that such a move would lead to a halt in U.S. funding.
U.S. officials and experts described Musharraf’s decision to declare a state of emergency as an attempt to reassert his authority, but a move that underscores how tenuous his position has become.
“I think Musharraf has rolled the dice,” said the senior U.S. official. “He believes that the odds are in his favor, that the public is going to accept this and that the public response to this is containable without a lot of violence.
“But it’s a risk,” the official said, “and we don’t know what the public reaction will be.”
The emergency declaration could inflame Islamic militancy in the country, and add to the political distractions that are already diverting the government’s attention from the pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, officials and experts said.
“The distraction factor will make it that much harder for the government to be able and willing to take the more forceful actions in the northwest that we would like to see them do,” said Pillar, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded this year that Al Qaeda was resurgent in Pakistan’s northwest frontier area and was rebuilding its ability to train terrorist operatives and plan attacks on targets in the West.
U.S. officials and experts emphasized that Pakistan has a history of tumultuous transitions between military dictatorships and democratic rule, and that the U.S. response would depend in large part on the duration of the emergency order, and whether Musharraf sticks to pledges he has made to allow elections to go forward.
Musharraf’s emergency declaration was condemned by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials.
“This action is very disappointing,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council. “President Musharraf needs to stand by his pledges to have free and fair elections in January and step down as chief of army staff before retaking the presidential oath of office. All parties involved should move along the democratic path peacefully and quickly.”
Speaking in English, Musharraf asked the U.S. and other allies to give Pakistan some time.
“Please do not expect or demand your level of democracy, which you learned over a number of centuries. Please also do not demand or expect your number of civil rights, human rights or civil liberties.”