Bush Pushes Pakistan's Musharraf to Give Up Military Leadership

Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte faced criticism from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte faced criticism from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 8, 2007

President Bush intervened in Pakistan's political crisis yesterday with a telephone call urging embattled President Pervez Musharraf to resign as commander of the Pakistani military and to hold elections within the next two months, as originally scheduled.

"My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon, and you need to take off your uniform," Bush said, describing his call with Musharraf at a joint news conference yesterday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time. So I had a very frank discussion with him."

Bush's call reflects growing U.S. concern over the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan and a sense within the administration that continued U.S. support for Musharraf could soon become difficult, even untenable, U.S. officials said.

The administration is already on the defensive from both Republicans and Democrats over its Pakistan policy. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte faced a barrage of criticism, with many members comparing Pakistan's crisis to the political chaos that preceded the fall of the shah of Iran and led to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are concerned about a potentially significant military challenge to Musharraf that could deepen Pakistani instability. Over the past three weeks, four towns in the strategic mountain region of Swat -- in the volatile North-West Frontier Province -- have fallen to Pakistani militants aligned with al-Qaeda, jeopardizing the government's hold on the area.

Musharraf has faced many security challenges during his eight years in power, including Islamic militants along the border, limited control of regions such as Baluchistan, terrorist attacks and incidents such as July's radical student takeover of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The loss of Swat would be a serious and "symbolic" blow to Pakistan's military, reflecting the insurgency's movement from the tribal border areas to threaten a key government outpost, a senior U.S. official said.

Negroponte, however, defended Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally who had made Pakistan a "more moderate, more prosperous partner" that shares "most basic strategic imperatives."

"No country has done more in terms of inflicting damage and punishment on the Taliban and al-Qaeda since 9/11 . . .," Negroponte told the House committee. "There's nothing more important at this time than for the United States to be consistently engaged and committed to try to do the right thing with Pakistan."

At the same time, however, he acknowledged that Musharraf needs to act to restore the constitution and step down as military commander quickly. "The longer the situation goes on in its present form, the more difficult it's going to become. That's why we believe this state of emergency end absolutely as soon as possible," Negroponte said.

But the administration is facing a chorus of congressional skeptics who charged that Musharraf is spending far more time fighting democratic activists and lawyers than al-Qaeda and Islamic militants. Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who described himself as "a fan and a supporter" of the Pakistani leader, charged that Musharraf had manipulated the Pakistani political system and the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, only to ensure his continued tenure in office.

"Now we have the worst of all possible worlds," Ackerman told Negroponte. "Our ally is an isolated and deeply resented leader who is less popular with his own people than Osama bin Laden, who instead of arresting the terrorists who pose an existential threat to his regime . . . is arresting the very people with whom he could have worked to generate the political support necessary to rid Pakistan of extremists."

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) warned Negroponte that the situation in Pakistan is beginning to resemble Iran. "If we're not careful, we're going to see the same thing happen that happened in Iran, and Pakistan is a nuclear power," he said.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) said the nation's credibility in promoting democracy is on the line in the Islamic world, where Washington would be seen as "the epitome of hypocrisy if we don't make a clear stand for democracy . . . in Pakistan."

In an angry outburst, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told Negroponte that it is too late for Musharraf to take off his uniform. "It's time for him to go," he said, scolding the State Department for sticking with "this failure." Musharraf is a "political juggler instead of a leader. He's been a chameleon instead of a bold opponent to radical Islam, or even a champion of moderation."

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) challenged Negroponte's evaluation of Musharraf as indispensable. "The one thing that's indispensable in Pakistan is the rule of law. And the rule of law has been, frankly, overturned," he said.

White House officials offered few additional details of Bush's conversation with Musharraf. Dana M. Perino, White House press secretary, said that "the president called him from the Oval Office around 11:15 a.m. President Musharraf listened carefully and heard what the president had to say."

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company