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Fresh doubt arises over a key U.S. ally

Times Staff Writer

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seemed to be one of the Bush administration’s most valuable foreign friends after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he denounced Al Qaeda and the Taliban and joined the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

But the value of that friendship has come into question again and again in the last six years, and may be most in doubt today.

Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule Saturday has isolated him at home and abroad, and suggests that President Bush has risked his stated goals and principles for an ally who couldn’t deliver on a fundamental promise: to hold together his turbulent country while facing down militant Islamists.

In Musharraf, an American president sometimes accused of naive neoconservative faith in democracy made the ultimate realist’s bargain to help prop up an authoritarian leader.

The step Musharraf has taken now has raised fears that the world may end up with a nuclear-armed state that is at once more fractured and host to a stronger Islamic militant force.

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The move is making Bush’s deal look more like the one U.S. presidents made with the shah of Iran, whose authoritarian rule opened the way in 1979 to a resentfully anti-U.S. uprising and Islamist regime.

Bush has sought to reassure Americans that Musharraf, an army general who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, was worthy of their trust. “He shares the same concerns about radicals and extremists,” Bush said at an Aug. 9 news conference.

Longtime worries

Yet from the beginning, U.S. officials have acknowledged concerns that the Pakistani government was not doing enough to foster democracy and halt nuclear proliferation. And an increasing number of U.S. officials have become convinced that Musharraf’s regime hasn’t done enough to fight militant Islamists.

One of the administration’s top priorities has been halting the spread of nuclear know-how. Yet Musharraf has not been willing to allow the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency to interview A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, which had been a source of nuclear knowledge for countries such as North Korea and Iran.

Musharraf promised Bush from the beginning that he would eventually give up his position as head of the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution, and hold free and fair elections at the risk of ending his own rule. Yet his declaration of emergency rule has been widely judged a desperate attempt to hold onto power as the Pakistani Supreme Court deliberated on the validity of his recent reelection.

And though Musharraf’s government has lost hundreds of soldiers since 2001 fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban, there always has been an ambivalence about the fight. Some members of the army’s intelligence agency and other units have had ties to radical groups and believe they have a strategic value as a proxy in facing down rivals such as India.

And the Pakistani regime is wary of taking too many casualties or alienating parts of its population in a fight that many Pakistanis believe is largely inspired by the United States.

Many Pentagon officials have become increasingly frustrated by their partnership with the Pakistanis, believing that the army is all too eager to get the billions of dollars in U.S. aid it has received since 2001 but less eager to join the fight. While the Pakistanis have turned over alleged militants and terrorists, some U.S. officials say that the detainees have often been members of the “B” team rather than from senior leadership positions.

Those officials also believe that though the Pakistanis turn over some intelligence, they hold other information back.

Some American officials have publicly stated their view that the U.S. should give military aid based on how much their Pakistani allies have done.

Indeed, a conflict developed between the two governments over Musharraf’s pact last year with tribal leaders that cleared the way for the army to withdraw from areas near the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials portrayed the deal as a masterstroke that would reduce troop casualties while enlisting the tribal authorities in the battle against Islamist militants in the area. But many U.S. officials came to believe the accord was simply a way for the Pakistani military to avoid the fight. And by last winter, they had concluded that the deal had allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and strengthen their positions.

A number of top U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, visited Pakistan with the message that something had to change. In late July, amplifying their complaints, the U.S. intelligence community issued an official judgment that foreign terrorists were regrouping in the tribal areas.

Mounting opposition

While the Islamists were strengthening their position against Musharraf, so was the moderate political opposition.

The administration was embarrassed earlier this year when Musharraf tried to oust the chief justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court, setting off huge public demonstrations by secular moderates and others. He was removed from his post Saturday.

U.S. officials did not complain loudly when Musharraf blocked former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to return home from exile abroad. Although the expulsion violated court judgments, the officials believed that American interests would be better served if Sharif were sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Instead, U.S. officials tried to arrange for Musharraf to strike a deal with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, hoping that her return would broaden Musharraf’s increasingly narrow base of political support.

American officials say privately that while opposition groups this year have been highly visible in challenging Musharraf’s autocratic rule, most Pakistanis have a far different view of democracy than do Americans. Pakistan is still largely a feudal society, they argue, and its tumultuous politics often represent the clashes of blocs dominated by a handful of powerful families that have ruled for generations.

For these U.S. officials, a true democratic revolution is less likely than a political disintegration with frightening consequences for the United States. That’s why they’ve supported Musharraf -- and why the White House, though critical of his emergency declaration, is tiptoeing gingerly around the question of whether the U.S. would cut off the aid that is its real leverage.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday in Jerusalem that the administration would review all of its aid programs to Pakistan in light of Musharraf’s move. But she quickly added that the administration did not want to take any step that would endanger the fight against terrorism.

At a Beijing news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates echoed Rice’s remarks.

Defense officials said they were disappointed that Musharraf had not committed Saturday to restoring constitutional rule. They also postponed a defense cooperation meeting with Pakistani officials set for Tuesday and Wednesday in Islamabad.

In Congress, few Democrats have seriously pushed for a cutoff of aid, not wanting to risk blame for a collapse of a country many believe is the main front in the war on terrorism.

Pakistani officials in Washington have in recent months acknowledged frictions.

“The trend is in the wrong direction,” an official said during the summer. But he insisted that backing remained strong both in the White House and Congress.

The latest crisis, with its suggestion that Musharraf acted because his power may be ebbing, will put that unconditional support to the test.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Richter is traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem. Times staff writer Julian Barnes in Beijing contributed to this report.


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