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U.S. Nervously Eyes Pakistani Impasse

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: September 17, 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 as the United States, which counts President Pervez Musharraf as a chief ally in its declared “war on terror.” The latest reports (Al-Jazeera) say that Musharraf has decided to step down as army chief to seek reelection as a civilian leader before his presidential term ends on November 15. This could spur a power-sharing deal (Reuters) between Musharraf and exiled prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had insisted that Musharraf give up his uniform. Washington is watching the unfolding events with great caution.

Musharraf’s efforts to maintain stability and seek another five-year term as president have put Washington policymakers in a delicate spot (AP). His 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 this 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) the proposed Musharraf-Bhutto deal.

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 would be plagued with its own problems. The Supreme Court, an increasingly potent source of opposition, has started hearing challenges (VOA) to Musharraf’s bid for reelection. An alliance of opposition parties has also threatened to resign (Economic Times) from parliament if Musharraf puts his reelection bid to a parliamentary poll, even as the Election Commission amended rules to pave the way for such a vote.

Cutting a deal with a military dictator and being perceived as a friend of the United States carries political costs for Bhutto too. Washington is also vulnerable to criticism (LAT) for interfering in Islamabad’s affairs, writes Rajan Menon, a fellow at the New America Foundation. Experts say the United States could face another potential problem (BBC) if the Bhutto deal fails and Musharraf must impose martial law.

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 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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