By Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 15, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 14 -- Faced with mounting pressure from former political allies and dwindling support from his international backers, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, once a top U.S. ally, is expected to resign in the next few days, according to Pakistani officials.
A week after leaders of the ruling coalition said they planned to impeach Musharraf, the capital was abuzz with speculation that he would step down before formal impeachment charges are filed in Parliament on Monday. Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup nine years ago, has survived at least two assassination attempts. But his opponents said Thursday that he was unlikely to withstand the current challenge to his presidency.
Musharraf has said he has no plans to leave Pakistan, although some analysts and political associates have suggested he could take up residence in Turkey, where he spent several years of his childhood. One senior Pakistani official said Musharraf's opening position in preliminary talks about his future was a demand for "indemnity and immunity" from prosecution.
"He has indicated he is not a rich man and can't live abroad," the official said.
Musharraf's possible departure has raised fears that it could further destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, and hamper the multibillion-dollar U.S. effort to fight al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in the region. In the event of Musharraf's ouster, the chairman of the 100-seat Senate would become the de facto head of state, and Parliament would have 30 days to take up a vote for the president's replacement.
Bush administration officials said they believed Musharraf had maintained hopes until late last week that some senior commanders of Pakistan's powerful military would support his continuation in office. Rumors briefly spread through the administration that Musharraf, who rose to power through the military before seizing control in a 1999 coup, was trying to organize a return to non-democratic emergency rule.
But the senior Pakistani official said that "the head count is over" and that army corps commanders had informed the government in Islamabad last Friday that they had no desire to be involved. Pakistan's newly appointed chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, has remained aloof from the impeachment debate while dozens of retired military officers have called publicly for Musharraf's removal.
Still unknown is whether Musharraf will reach out to the White House and seek to revive his once-close relationship with President Bush. U.S. officials said there had been no high-level contact with Musharraf for some time. They said that Bush's top national security advisers had counseled him "not to take the call" if Musharraf telephoned but that Bush had not yet communicated a decision on the matter.
Farah Ispahani, a top member of the Pakistan People's Party, part of the ruling coalition, said Musharraf is expected to resign within two to three days. Ispahani, a member of Parliament and the wife of Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said that details of Musharraf's resignation plan remain under negotiation but that it was clear his support was shrinking rapidly.
"We hope that in the interest of the good of Pakistan, and for the good of the country, that Mr. Musharraf takes the right course and resigns before the impeachment process begins," Ispahani said.
The senior Pakistani official, who said he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said a game of "psychological warfare" was underway between Pakistani politicians and Musharraf's backers. "The truth is that he will resign," the official said, but "official action has to be taken by him, and he has not yet taken the action."
Dozens of members of Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q abandoned him this week after three provincial assemblies voted overwhelmingly in favor of his impeachment. On Friday, the provincial assembly in the southern province of Baluchistan is expected to deliver a similar vote, according to Pakistani politicians and analysts.
Leaders of the ruling coalition, which also includes former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, called for Musharraf's impeachment Aug. 7. The coalition has at times appeared on the brink of collapse since the two parties swept Parliamentary elections in February. But last week, Sharif and the co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, Asif Ali Zardari, presented a united front in calling for the president to step down.
A two-thirds majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate are required to oust Musharraf from office.
Although the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan after Musharraf overthrew Sharif in 1999, the Bush administration became a vocal backer of his government when he declared allegiance to Washington following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His government has provided unprecedented U.S. access to Pakistani territory, including operational support to fight an Islamist insurgency that has spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan's remote tribal areas along the 1,500-mile-long Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
But while the administration supported Pakistan's return to democracy this spring, it was reluctant to sever ties with Musharraf, who remained president. Concerns over the coalition government's determination to continue the counterterrorism fight have increased measurably in recent weeks. U.S. officials have charged that Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies -- long under military control -- have been aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the government lacks the ability, and perhaps the desire, to control them.
The coalition reached its decision to impeach Musharraf only days after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani visited the White House and weeks after a top CIA official confronted Pakistan's civilian government with evidence that the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency had helped coordinate a deadly suicide bombing in Afghanistan last month.
The White House is thought to be split on how strongly to back Musharraf, especially since the call for his impeachment. But while Vice President Cheney is often cited as Musharraf's principal backer in Washington, officials there said that Cheney now agrees that the president should be cut off. They said that it was Bush who had not committed to a final break with someone he still considers a counterterrorism ally.
"The vast majority of the U.S. government has moved beyond their original attachment to Musharraf," one official said.
DeYoung reported from Washington.