Musharraf's Survival May Hinge on Elections

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007

The Bush administration is betting that President Pervez Musharraf can survive the crisis in Pakistan if he moves decisively to lift emergency rule and hold elections over the next two months, despite new U.S. intelligence concerns about the dangers of long-term instability or, worse, a political vacuum, U.S. officials say. Timing is the key, they add.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday called on Musharraf to restore constitutional rule "as soon as possible." The administration is considering sending a senior official to Islamabad this week to tell the Pakistani leader that he must urgently rescind restrictions on the media, civil society and opposition politicians, which could discredit any January elections -- and endanger both Pakistan's stability and his political future, the sources said.

But the United States is also hedging its bets, with the U.S. Embassy reaching out to civil society leaders, military officials, community leaders and political parties to build options -- just in case, U.S. officials say. "We don't want to be seen to be looking, but we want to make sure we talk to a wide array of people," said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the crisis.

Over the past week, the administration's position has begun to evolve from a commitment to stand by Musharraf to an emphasis on the will of the Pakistani people, and of unnamed "others."

"We encourage moderate political forces in Pakistan to work together. Now if that means President Musharraf and former prime minister [Benazir] Bhutto or others, then that is a decision for those people to make. It's a decision for the Pakistani people to make," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

On ABC's "This Week" yesterday, Rice again shifted the focus from Musharraf. "This is not a personal matter about President Musharraf. This is about the Pakistani people, and the United States has been dedicated to helping the Pakistani people come to a more democratic path," she said.

America's top diplomat also emphasized long-term U.S. goals rather than loyalty to the top U.S. ally in counterterrorism efforts since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "We're standing with democratic principles in Pakistan when we say there have to be free and fair elections. We're standing with principles of moderation when we try to work to bring moderate forces together," Rice said. "If the suggestion is that we somehow now abandon a course that could lead back to a path of democracy for Pakistan, I think that would be a mistake."

U.S. policymakers are now focused on the two-month window, through the elections Musharraf promised by Jan. 9, for the Pakistani leader to restore the rule of law. The key will be moves by Musharraf to start a "steady progression" of steps to signal a return to constitutional rule, said the U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He must demonstrate light at the end of the tunnel."

Yet a nervousness permeates U.S. policy after only one week of crisis, which has increasingly diverted attention from regional counterterrorism to Pakistan's internal politics. After the police siege around Bhutto's home and the arrest of thousands of lawyers on Friday, U.S. officials are worried about whether Musharraf can last until elections play out. "We don't know what this is going to look like next week, never mind three months from now," said another administration official who would speak only anonymously because of the crisis.

In policy deliberations, intelligence analysis and even a congressional hearing last week, an array of government officials have mentioned comparisons between the growing instability in Pakistan and the turmoil that preceded the 1979 overthrow of the shah of Iran.

While there are many differences between the two crises and countries, and no officials say they foresee an Islamic upheaval in Pakistan, several officials have talked about the same consequences.

"Iran has come up on more than one occasion -- the idea that if it doesn't go well, we can expect an extended period of time where popular opinion trends very negatively against the United States and makes it difficult for future governments to work with us on counterterrorism objectives," said the first U.S. official.

Iran was a repeated theme of questioning at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week. "Some have said that the U.S. has over-relied on a leader who has made efforts to modernize but who has a shrinking base of support," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia are even more pessimistic, with some officials suggesting that the United States has put its head in the sand on Pakistan. "This could go south very, very quickly. It's one of the worst international crises we have had -- and I include Iraq in that statement," a European diplomat said. "The United States is more tolerant of Musharraf. To the Americans, he's not perfect, but he's the only Musharraf they have."

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