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U.S. Nervously Eyes Pakistani Impasse

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: September 14, 2007

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Every day that passes without a settlement to Pakistan’s political crisis raises concerns about escalating violence and instability. Few countries have as much at stake in the outcome as the United States, which counts President Pervez Musharraf as a chief ally in its declared “war on terror.” Musharraf’s latest steps to maintain stability and his plan to seek another five-year term as president have put Washington policymakers in a delicate spot (AP).

The government has detained (IHT) hundreds of opposition political figures and workers in the past few days. And its recent move to deny entry to exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in defiance of the Supreme Court has led to Pakistan slipping into what Economist.com calls “an undeclared state of emergency.” In the midst of the ferment, the U.S. State Department’s second-ranking official, Deputy Secretary John Negroponte, visited Islamabad to affirm the U.S.-Pakistan anti-terror alliance (VOA). He also stressed that the controversy surrounding Sharif’s return is an internal Pakistani matter, while making it clear the United States supports (AP) a power-sharing deal involving Musharraf and another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto has announced that she will return to Pakistan from her eight-year exile on October 18. According to reports, the Pakistani government has assured that she will not be deported (AP) though Bhutto will have to face pending corruption charges against her. Consensus has been growing in Washington that a coalition between Musharraf and Bhutto’s Pakistan’s People Party (PPP), one of the most popular parties in the country, might be the best possible way for Pakistan to transition to democracy. CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey writes in Foreign Affairs that “Washington’s choice is not between Musharraf and democracy, nor is it between Musharraf and radical militants. Rather, the choice is between an army chief in a coalition with progressives and moderates and an army chief in league with other less appealing partners.”

But any Bhutto-Musharraf alliance is plagued with its own problems. Bhutto has reportedly insisted that Musharraf must step down as army chief and their partnership, if it materializes, will also face legal battles (TIME). Moreover, cutting a deal with a military dictator and being perceived as a friend of the United States carries political costs for Bhutto. Washington is also vulnerable to criticism (LAT) for interfering in Islamabad’s affairs, writes Rajan Menon, a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Pakistan is a top concern as a terrorist haven and source of nuclear proliferation, according to a recent polling (PDF) of foreign policy experts by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress. To bring about positive change, experts believe the United States will have to change its strategy in dealing with Pakistan with or without Musharraf. In The Washington Quarterly, Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes that Washington will have to pursue policies (PDF) that push Islamabad in the direction of becoming a fully democratic regime in which the military functions as the guardian, and not the master of the state.

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