By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007
In August, a 2 a.m. phone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped pull Gen. Pervez Musharraf from the brink of declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan. Two days ago, Rice made a similar plea. This time, the Pakistani president was not swayed.
Musharraf's decision to suspend his nation's constitution and declare emergency rule yesterday poses a sharp setback for U.S. efforts to push Pakistan toward democracy, and it calls into question President Bush's unstinting support for Musharraf despite the general's growing unpopularity and inability to counter hard-line militants, analysts said.
The United States now finds itself with few good options and dwindling power to influence events in the nuclear-armed state, particularly because experts believe Musharraf's actions may have ensured his demise as a national leader. The Bush administration has given Pakistan $10 billion in aid since 2001 -- much of it military assistance -- and U.S. officials had warned that Congress may balk at continuing aid if emergency powers were invoked. But some analysts cautioned that if the United States is perceived as withdrawing support for Musharraf, it may increase the risk of a civil war and the shattering of Pakistan.
Rice, who called Musharraf on Friday and warned him against taking this step, said yesterday that Musharraf's actions are "highly regrettable," telling reporters traveling with her that "the United States has made clear it does not support extra-constitutional measures, because those measures would take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule."
U.S. officials appeared taken aback by Musharraf's move but quickly shifted yesterday from expressions of dismay to resignation, insisting that any "extra-constitutional measures" be brief. There was no suggestion of immediate cuts in aid, and Rice indicated that she had told Musharraf that, even if he imposed emergency rule, he nonetheless should move quickly to elections.
The Bush administration must now start "from the premise that he's gone, whether the people chuck him out or the military chucks him out," said Xenia Dormandy, who until last year was the National Security Council's director for South Asia. "I would be very surprised if he lasts even six months."
Dormandy faulted the Bush administration for sending "mixed messages" to Musharraf in recent months, allowing him to believe he could weather the fallout from a declaration of emergency powers. She emphasized the State Department's statement yesterday that the United States stands "with the people of Pakistan in supporting a democratic process and in countering violent extremism," and noted that it did not mention support for Musharraf.
"The train is derailed and off the tracks," said Stephen P. Cohen, author of "The Idea of Pakistan." "We have to give ourselves a share of the responsibility for this. We placed all of our chips on Musharraf."
At this point, Cohen added: "I don't think there is anything we can do. We are not big players in this anymore."
Bush has long been a firm supporter of Musharraf, believing he was a "strong partner" in the fight against terrorism who put his life at risk after he dramatically switched sides and opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Musharraf's democratic credentials have been less than ideal for an administration that publicly champions the cause of freedom. He seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and has never fulfilled a pledge to give up his position as army chief while serving as president. But the administration rarely challenged him openly to support more rapid democratization.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said Musharraf's action requires the United States "to move from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy," building "a new relationship with the Pakistani people, with more nonmilitary aid, sustained over a long period of time, so that the moderate majority in Pakistan has a chance to succeed."
Even on countering terrorism, Musharraf has proven to be a disappointment. Despite years of effort, only a handful of top al-Qaeda figures have been captured in the unruly border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Negotiated settlements Musharraf reached last year with armed Islamic groups and tribal leaders in North and South Waziristan, in which he pledged to pull back troops from the border areas if the tribes kept al-Qaeda and foreign fighters out, turned into a bad bet that instead allowed insurgents to gather strength and to begin challenging the government in other parts of the country.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman called Musharraf's declaration "unfortunate" but said "close coordination with the Pakistani military on operations continues."
The administration continued to back Musharraf, even as he began to hint at invoking emergency powers after a confrontation with Pakistan's Supreme Court. In August, during a late-night phone call, Rice managed to deter the Pakistani president from suspending the constitution. In the intervening weeks, the United States, along with Britain, worked out a deal that allowed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, to return to Pakistan last month for the first time in eight years. Under the arrangement, Musharraf was to remain president, but Bhutto could take part in parliamentary elections planned for early next year. But the U.S. efforts to support opposition parties came too late, experts said.
"The coup in Pakistan is a body blow to the administration's efforts to arrange a shotgun marriage between Musharraf and Bhutto that would have given the appearance of a broadening of Pakistani politics," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and National Security Council staff member now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. "Instead of a more democratic Pakistan, we will have a more authoritarian Pakistan. Instead of a more stable Pakistan fighting al-Qaeda, we will have a military regime fighting for its survival."
A number of Pakistan experts said the situation is too fluid for predictions. "I don't know what's going to happen," Cohen said. "I don't think any Pakistan expert knows what will happen even tomorrow."
Rice was in Istanbul, Turkey, attending an international conference on Iraq when her attention was shifted to the upheaval in Pakistan. One adviser traveling with Rice saw a silver lining in the rapid turn of events. "Thank heavens for small favors," the official said. Compared to Pakistan, "Iraq looks pretty good."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, traveling with Rice, Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.