U.S. Strives to Keep Footing In Tangled Pakistan Situation

Asif Ali Zardari, left, Benazir Bhutto's husband, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif meet in Pakistan.
Asif Ali Zardari, left, Benazir Bhutto's husband, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif meet in Pakistan. (By The Pakistan Muslim League Via Associated Press)
By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 30, 2007

For the Bush administration, there is no Plan B for Pakistan.

The assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto dramatically altered Pakistani politics, forcing the largest opposition party to find new leadership on the eve of an election, jeopardizing a fragile transition to democracy, and leaving Washington even more dependent on the controversial President Pervez Musharraf as the lone pro-U.S. leader in a nation facing growing extremism.

Despite anxiety among intelligence officials and experts, however, the administration is only slightly tweaking a course charted over the past 18 months to support the creation of a political center revolving around Musharraf, according to U.S. officials.

"Plan A still has to work," said a senior administration official involved in Pakistan policy. "We all have to appeal to moderate forces to come together and carry the election and create a more solidly based government, then use that as a platform to fight the terrorists. "

U.S. policy remains wedded to Musharraf despite growing warnings from experts, presidential candidates and even a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan that his dictatorial ways are untenable. Some contend that Pakistan would be better off without him.

"This administration has had a disastrous policy toward Pakistan, as bad as the Iraq policy," said Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group. "They are clinging to the wreckage of Musharraf, flailing around. . . . Musharraf has outlived all possible usage to Pakistan and the United States."

Templer contends that without Musharraf, moderate forces, coming from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, the moderate Balochistan National Party and the mostly Pashtun Awami National Party, could create a new, more legitimate centrist political space.

But with Musharraf having won a five-year presidential term in October -- an election perceived by many as tainted and illegitimate -- the looming question centers on who will become prime minister. Bhutto was expected to assume that role after the January election, a move U.S. officials believed would have bolstered both Musharraf and U.S. interests. But now there are no obvious heirs.

"We have a room full of tigers in Pakistan," the senior U.S. official said. "This is a really complicated situation, and we have to use our influence in a lot of ways but also realize we can't determine the outcome. We're not dropping pixie dust on someone to anoint them as the next leader."

Washington's challenges now are far more daunting than they were in brokering a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf that produced her return from exile and the promise of free elections.

At the top of the list is getting former prime minister Sharif to reverse course on boycotting the Jan. 8 parliamentary election. The United States is in the awkward position of trying to coax a party leader with an anti-American platform and close ties to religious parties to cooperate with Musharraf, a secular former general and top U.S. ally in fighting extremism.

The two men are bitter rivals. Sharif has accused Musharraf of treason for toppling his democratically elected government in a military coup in 1999. Musharraf, in turn, believes Sharif tried to kill him, his wife and 200 other passengers when the Sharif government in 1999 initially refused to allow a commercial jetliner carrying Musharraf to land in Pakistan even though fuel was running low. In his autobiography, Musharraf alleges that the airliner had only seven minutes of fuel when it finally landed after the military intervened.

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