By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Even before he walked through the door at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York for his first face-to-face meeting with President Bush in 2001, Pervez Musharraf was something of a hero within the administration for his decisive stand against the Taliban and al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Over the course of a dozen private meetings and numerous phone conversations since then, the savvy and well-spoken Pakistani president has made a point of cementing his personal relationship with Bush. Musharraf has regaled the U.S. president with stories of his youth in Punjab, his empathy for rank-and-file soldiers and his desire to reform the education system in Pakistan, according to individuals familiar with those conversations.
"I think [the president] took an instant liking to Musharraf," former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage said. "At a key moment for us, we gave Musharraf a very tough series of choices, and he came down on our side. He is blunt, and Bush likes that."
Bush's personal investment in the Pakistani president, once seen as an asset in the administration's "global war on terror," is now seen as a liability for both leaders in Washington and Pakistan, where Musharraf's assumption of emergency powers and crackdown on opponents have triggered a political crisis in one of the United States' most important allies.
In the two weeks since emergency rule was imposed, Bush has made clear he is standing by Musharraf, offering only muted criticism of his actions and refusing to consider any significant cut in U.S. assistance, which has totaled more than $10 billion since 2001. Bush has described Musharraf as "a strong fighter against extremists and radicals" even as he has urged him to lift the state of emergency and hold elections.
Bush's response to the crisis has been shaped to a great degree by a continuing White House calculation that Musharraf represents its best chance to put Pakistan on a path to democracy and to wage an effective fight against Islamic extremists on its border with Afghanistan. The assessment does not appear to have changed much in the past two weeks, despite deep doubts from outside the administration about whether Musharraf remains capable of achieving either objective, and questions about whether he is truly committed to democracy.
"When Musharraf has made decisions and given his word, as he did after 9/11, he has been true to his word," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said. "So there is a track record we have with this man."
Wendy J. Chamberlin, who served as ambassador to Pakistan during the critical months after Sept. 11, 2001, said the administration may have been justified in standing by Musharraf -- but not after his recent seizure of emergency powers. "We have to make clear that our relationship is with the people of Pakistan and not with one man, and that he is not indispensable," said Chamberlin, president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based policy group.
Bush's close association with Musharraf is somewhat ironic, given that during the 2000 presidential campaign, he could not name the new president of Pakistan -- Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 -- when confronted with an impromptu foreign policy quiz by a Boston television reporter.
But that lack of familiarity quickly disappeared, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, when senior Bush officials delivered tough messages demanding that Musharraf break with the Taliban and assist U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda. Musharraf wrote in his autobiography that Armitage told the head of Pakistani intelligence that Pakistan should be prepared to be bombed "back to the Stone Age" if it sided with terrorists -- a statement Armitage has categorically denied making.
Several current and former administration officials described Bush as deeply impressed by Musharraf's response to the attacks, particularly his personal courage in the face of assassination attempts by Islamic extremists. Though Musharraf had a mixed record in delivering on promises to Bush, such as extracting information about the nuclear network operated by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, the president appeared to cut him a break on the theory that he was doing the best he could in an extremely dangerous and complicated political environment, the officials said.
"We were asking him to fight extremism, to deal with A.Q. Kahn, national hero, to stick to his commitments on a democratic transition, to reform the economy and to continue diplomatic progress with India," said Michael J. Green, who handled Asia issues for Bush on the National Security Council. "Musharraf made progress on all those fronts, never fully satisfying everyone, but he did make progress."
Green added that "the difficulty was, you never knew how much [of what] Musharraf said he would do would get translated into action by" his military and intelligence services.
Another former Bush NSC staff member, Xenia Dormandy, said the need to restore democracy in Pakistan was a regular talking point in meetings between Bush and Musharraf, but it was clear that that issue took a back seat to concerns about fighting al-Qaeda and nonproliferation. Still, she said, officials believed Musharraf was sincere in his repeated assurances that he intended to bring back full democracy.
"We certainly felt that Musharraf was still doing good things for the country," Dormandy said. "He was not as democratic as we like, and we always pushed him, but his objective was to move the country in a different direction."
A key source of tension in recent years has not been Pakistani democracy but concern within the U.S. government that Musharraf has been increasingly unwilling or unable to control the renaissance of Islamic extremists in the lightly governed regions along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The issue came to a head in the fall last year after Musharraf stunned U.S. officials by signing a peace deal with Islamic militants along the border, a move that infuriated Afghan officials who saw Pakistan providing a haven to Taliban insurgents staging attacks against the Kabul government.
One of the tensest meetings between Bush and Musharraf came during a three-way summit at the White House in September last year, when Bush tried to broker a truce between the Pakistani president and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai. Bush tried to play the role of neutral arbiter, according to one person familiar with the meeting, who said there was considerable awkwardness when Karzai complained about Pakistan turning a blind eye to the Islamic extremists.
A number of people involved in Pakistan policy over the years say they remain uncertain how strong Bush has been in delivering a truly tough message to Musharraf about the need to rein in extremists or to restore democracy. Administration officials say Musharraf has little question where Bush stands on key issues, though they do acknowledge that the "tough" talk is often delivered by the president's subordinates.
Dormandy lamented what she described as years of ambiguous messages from the United States to Musharraf. "If we truly expected Musharraf not to call a state of emergency, if we truly expected Musharraf to be strongly urged to pursue democratic objectives, then we would have been more clear about how important it was to us," she said. "We left him the impression that if he moved on other priorities, he would probably be okay."