Our Man in Islamabad

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, February 21, 2008

Overwhelming repudiation of President Pervez Musharraf by Pakistan's voters did not immediately dilute the Bush administration's support for him. On the contrary, the first election returns were barely in Monday night when the U.S. government began pressing victorious opposition leaders not to impeach the former military strongman.

Publicly, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that Musharraf "is still the president of Pakistan" and expressed hope that "whoever winds up in charge of the new government would be able to work with him."

Privately, U.S. diplomats pushed hard against any effort to dislodge the retired army general who had just suffered a public rejection, unprecedented in Pakistan's 60 years, from the office he retained last year through nefarious means.

The United States again guessed wrong in pinning its hopes on an authoritarian, anti-democratic foreign leader. Musharraf follows the pattern of South Korea's Syngman Rhee, the shah of Iran and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, all of whom went into exile after public rejection. But Musharraf remains our man in Islamabad, counted on by Washington to battle Islamist terrorists -- including Osama bin Laden -- despite his inconstant efforts.

Foggy Bottom's stubborn policymakers are frozen in an irrelevant mind-set, dating to their effort last year to broker a partnership between Musharraf, as president, and Benazir Bhutto, as prime minister. In her memoir, "Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West," which she worked on before her assassination in December, Bhutto detailed Musharraf's perfidy in reneging on power-sharing agreements made with her in two meetings last year. Instead, Musharraf engineered his election as president by a lame-duck parliament, purged the judiciary, imposed martial law and refused to resign from the army until virtually forced to do so by Washington.

Since Bhutto's murder, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher has antagonized Pakistan's opposition leaders by insisting that Musharraf was committed to a "good" election while in fact the voting rolls were being rigged. Minimal Election Day fraud can be attributed to Musharraf's weakness rather than his strength. The army refused to provide the cooperation needed to really steal votes. According to Pakistani sources, the high command was alarmed that Musharraf's unpopularity had undermined public esteem for the military.

These changes apparently escaped the notice of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, which on election eve reported to Washington that Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q would do well enough to force a coalition government. Vote-rigging probably cost the opposition 25 seats, mainly in Baluchistan -- not enough to prevent a substantial majority by opposition parties that could overturn Musharraf's policies.

Officials of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) say that while Musharraf deserves to be impeached, they would not move against him if he shows any humility. But the retired general has not departed from his habitual arrogance, even at the moment of humiliation.

In "Reconciliation" (concluded shortly before her death and published this week), Bhutto was careful to avoid an anti-American posture but still detailed Washington's long record of support for military regimes that overturned democratically elected leaders in Pakistan. I must report that my late partner, Rowland Evans, and I followed that line of reasoning as necessary to enlist Pakistan as an ally against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

This government outlook has persisted in the war against Islamist terrorism, though it has been increasingly clear that Musharraf would not vigorously pursue that conflict. I was impressed when I talked to Bhutto in New York last summer to find her committed against the extremists inside Pakistan in a way Musharraf never has been. "The core of my being as a Muslim," she wrote in her memoir, "rejects those using Islam to justify acts of terror to pervert, manipulate, and exploit religion for their own political agenda."

Those sentiments reflect how much Benazir Bhutto will be missed.

Her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who has succeeded her as PPP leader, will not take the prime minister's post. Whoever does head the new Pakistani government cannot be counted on to pursue the risky course that Bhutto promised of closing madrassas and fighting al-Qaeda in tribal lands. No Pakistani expects help from Musharraf, who has been repudiated by the public and is not backed by the army now that he has removed his uniform. Only the State Department still takes him seriously.

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