By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 30, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 29 -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to step down as army chief as part of a broad and once-unthinkable agreement being finalized with his chief political rival, Benazir Bhutto, officials on both sides said Wednesday.
The agreement, if completed, would probably permit Musharraf to continue as president and allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan after eight years of exile to try to win back her old job as prime minister, officials said. More broadly, the deal would fundamentally alter the political landscape in Pakistan, a top U.S. ally on counterterrorism but also a haven for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
A top aide to Musharraf confirmed that the issue of the president's military status had been settled and that he would be making an announcement soon.
"It's solved," said Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a federal minister.
Later, in a telephone interview from London, Bhutto also said that while one or two issues needed to be worked out with Musharraf, the question of whether the president would stay in uniform would not be a "stumbling block."
"General Musharraf understands that the people of Pakistan want him to take the uniform off. And he wants to make the people happy," Bhutto said.
An agreement would have been highly improbable six months ago. The president, who derives much of his power from his army post and refers to his khaki uniform as his "second skin," had long resisted resigning from the military. He had also rejected the idea of Bhutto or former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returning to Pakistan ahead of elections slated for later this year or early 2008. The three are bitter rivals.
But since March, when an attempt by Musharraf to fire the chief justice led to civil unrest, Pakistan's politics have been in deep turmoil and the general's standing has fallen precipitously.
With the chief justice reinstated in July and likely to block Musharraf's plans to win a new term in office, analysts say the president's options had narrowed considerably.
An agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto would be welcomed in Washington, where Bush administration officials have been pushing for an alliance of moderates in Pakistan to battle rising forces of extremism.
Although the United States had not been actively involved in the negotiations, it had been prodding the two sides to come together and had helped to facilitate the talks, according to people familiar with the U.S. role.
Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who until recently was a South Asia expert at the State Department, said a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf was the best among a set of imperfect options.
"It's a good transitional situation," Markey said. "But it's not a stable, workable setup in the long run. There's not a lot of love lost between the two of them."
Indeed, Bhutto seems to revel in casting herself as everything Musharraf is not, and vice versa. Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s, has spent much of the past eight years decrying Musharraf as "a military dictator." Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 military-led coup, has accused Bhutto of rampant corruption and has dismissed her tenure as "sham democracy."
Still, for the moment at least, the two need each other.
If the deal goes through, it would involve a dizzying array of concessions on both sides that would require numerous changes to Pakistani law, including constitutional amendments.
For Musharraf, the deal means he would get to serve another five years as president if elected for a new term by the parliament and provincial assemblies. Bhutto said it remained unclear Wednesday whether that endorsement would come from the current legislatures, which expire this fall, or from new ones that are expected to be elected this winter.
Either way, officials indicated, Bhutto will instruct her party not to try to block Musharraf's plans, provided he runs as a civilian. The election could take place as early as mid-September, meaning Musharraf would be stepping down from his army role in the next few weeks.
Musharraf needs Bhutto's popularity to give his election credibility, said Ahmed, the federal minister.
For Bhutto, the agreement would allow her to return to Pakistan and stand for election to the parliament. If her party, the center-left Pakistan People's Party, won the most seats, as projected by opinion polls, she would be in line to serve as prime minister.
Bhutto is also expected to win the dismissal of various corruption charges against her and other government officials stemming from the late 1980s and 1990s.
Although the two sides are close together on terms, various wild cards remain.
Among them is the impending return of Sharif, who has vowed not to compromise with Musharraf and has chastised Bhutto for doing so. The Supreme Court this month cleared the way for Sharif to return, despite an agreement he signed in 2000 to spend 10 years in exile in Saudi Arabia rather than serve a life sentence imposed in Pakistan.
Another unknown is how the Supreme Court would react to the deal between Musharraf and Bhutto, and whether it would strike down any of the legal changes called for in the agreement.
If the plan succeeds, Musharraf and Bhutto face the prospect of governing together. Bhutto said she anticipates Musharraf continuing to direct the nation's foreign policy but said she would expect to take control of domestic matters.
In Pakistan, however, those lines are rarely clear-cut. For instance, Bhutto said she would take a different approach in battling militancy in Pakistan, a domestic issue with vast international implications.
Musharraf's government has struck a series of cease-fire agreements with Taliban fighters in the tribal areas, but Bhutto said that approach would not continue under her leadership.
"A line in the sand has to be drawn," she said. "The past six or seven years of trying to placate them have only emboldened them."