The White House is treading a fine line when it comes to Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, worried that too little criticism of his emergency rule could alienate the people of Pakistan and critics in Congress, but that too much criticism could spark an Islamist takeover in a country believed to have an arsenal of 24 to 30 nuclear weapons.
After meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his ranch in Crawford, Texas over the weekend, President Bush called on Musharraf to uphold his pledge to resign his post as Pakistan’s army chief if he wants to stay on as Pakistani president.
“President Musharraf said that he would take off his uniform; he said there will be elections after the new year. And our hope is that he would suspend this emergency decree to allow this society, which is on the path to democracy, to get back on the path to democracy,” Bush said.
But inside Pakistan, tempers are rising and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto says that the country now resembles a “pressure cooker.”
“Without a place to vent, the passion of our people for liberty threatens to explode,” she told diplomats in Islamabad on Saturday night.
Ever mindful of the risk that nuclear-armed Pakistan could descend into chaos, the State Department has stepped up the pressure on Musharraf with great caution.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte gave an unusually frank display of displeasure with the general last week during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs committee. “President Musharraf's new emergency powers undermine democracy,” Negroponte said.
He reminded committee members that President Bush has called repeatedly on Musharraf to “restore democracy quickly, to ensure that elections take place as scheduled, and to resign his position as chief of army staff, as he had promised to do.”
But in the very next sentence, he pointed out that “President Musharraf has been an indispensable ally in the global war on terrorism, a leader who extremists and radicals have tried to assassinate multiple times.”
Critics in Congress have begun openly calling on the administration to ditch the general and to embrace Bhutto, the Western-educated former prime minister whose two terms in office were mired in corruption and mismanagement.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a fiery back-bench Republican from California, took the gloves off last week. “Who cares if General Musharraf takes off his uniform? It's time for him to go. I don't care if he's in his uniform or out of his uniform; it's time for him to go,” he told Negroponte.
Even the ranking Republican on the committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had harsh words for the general, calling his recent actions “deplorable,” and his promises to restore democracy “empty.” The general “has betrayed the trust of the United States and more importantly of the Pakistani people,” the Florida Republican said.
Over the past week, Ros-Lehtinen has been joined by Bush’s critics such Democrat presidential contender Sen. Joe Biden in suggesting there might be a comparison between the situation in Pakistan today and that of Iran just before the 1979 revolution.
Without strong U.S. support for Pakistan’s moderate majority, Biden said last week, “moderates may find that they have no choice but to make common cause with extremists, just as the shah’s opponents did in Iran three decades ago.”
However, there is one huge difference between Pakistan today and the Iran of 1979, Biden said. “Pakistan already has nuclear weapons.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, also a Democrat presidential contender, pushed the Iran analogy even further. “We made the mistake years ago of backing a dictatorship in Iran. We’re paying for it today,” he said.
Not everyone accepts that reading of U.S. policy toward the Shah of Iran, however.
“Others say, well, if you use that analogy of Iran, you could say that we should have stayed with the Shah and Iran would be a better place now,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
Gen. Musharraf has argued that that he imposed emergency rule in order to keep extremists from derailing the gradual return to democracy he has promised.
The general’s supporters point to the suicide bombing that rocked the convoy of opposition leader Bhutto when she returned from self-imposed exile on Oct. 18 as a sign of the growing threat from the extremists. They claim that they placed her temporarily under house arrest and suspended mass political meetings in order to protect Bhutto and her partisans from attack.
But Bhutto herself scoffs at the general’s claims, and accuses him of spending more time arresting human rights lawyers than fighting terrorists.
Her partisans note that on the same day Musharraf imposed emergency rule in Islamabad, he released more than a dozen Taliban fighters as part of a deal to win the freedom of government troops taken hostage in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are now under Taliban rule.
The stakes in the current face-off between Musharraf and the opposition are higher than any foreign policy crisis the Bush administration has faced since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We cannot allow a radical Islamist, fundamentalist government to take place over there,” said Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana.
“We cannot allow the same thing that happened in Iran to happen in Pakistan, and . . . this Congress has to be very careful in the way we address this and the things we say because we may end up getting the same thing that we got Iran, and it's something we don't want, especially in the nuclear age,” Burton added.
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