WASHINGTON - Amid growing polarisation between President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan's civilian opposition forces, U.S. hopes of salvaging a power-sharing accord that would marry the military dictator to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are fading fast.
Indeed, Bhutto's public break with the military dictator -- enunciated, among other places, in a Washington Post column Wednesday that called on Musharraf to resign as both president and as army chief -- will make it much harder to patch together the deal that Washington had tried so hard to work out over the last several months, according to most analysts here.
That deal called for Musharraf to retain his disputed presidency on condition that he first permit Bhutto to return from exile and then hold elections that would give her a third premiership in exchange for his resignation as chief of the army, presumably in favour of his number two, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a Washington favourite.
Kayani, routinely touted in the press here as a "moderate" and "pro-western" officer, has also been depicted as part of a group of military reformers who, according to the New York Times, "are widely believed to be eager to pull the army out of politics and focus its attention purely on securing the country", presumably from radical, Taliban-related Islamists who have both consolidated and expanded their control of the frontier areas along the Afghan border since Musharraf declared his state of emergency 10 days ago.
But with Bhutto put under house arrest in Lahore and thousands of other opposition politicians, activists, lawyers, and human rights defenders in detention around the country, it now appears that the deal is off, and Washington's options have become both narrower and the course of events much more risky.
The stakes could not be higher. Not only is the Pakistani Army's cooperation considered essential to stabilising Afghanistan against the Taliban and defeating al Qaeda, but the prospect that the worsening political crisis could fracture the military along regional lines is now looming as a worrisome possibility. Pakistan is believed to have some 50 nuclear weapons scattered around the country.
In addition, the Bush administration's failure to break with Musharraf and declare unequivocal support for the civilian opposition's demands risks both further alienating the vast majority of the more than 160 million Pakistanis whose image of the U.S. had fallen to unprecedented levels before the current crisis, and exposing Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Muslim world -- already a source of understandable scepticism -- as a total fraud.
"If anyone in the Muslim world still believed in the Bush administration's historic promise to support democracy over political expedience, those hopes are being shattered with the crisis unfolding in Pakistan," said Mohamad Bazzi, a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
To try to redress the situation, the administration of President George W. Bush is sending Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Islamabad as his special envoy Thursday for talks with Musharraf, as well as meetings with other senior political figures, probably including Bhutto herself.
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Negroponte's primary goal, according to insiders, is to see whether "Humpty-Dumpty can be put back together again," according to one administration official who asked not to be identified in a reference to the original power-sharing plan.
To that end, Negroponte will point to threats by Congress that would cut off nearly two billion dollars in mostly military aid it has appropriated for Pakistan each year since the "global war on terror" after 9/11, unless Musharraf rescinds the emergency, sheds his uniform, and permits free and fair elections to go forward, among other conditions. In addition, Congress could suspend the sales of long-sought F-16 fighter jets.
But many analysts here believe that will not be sufficient to bring Musharraf around. If anything, the Pakistani leader appears to have become increasingly confident that he can ride out the storm, particularly given the continuing mildness of western reaction, including Negroponte's own assertion in Congressional testimony last week that the Pakistani leader was an "indispensable" ally in the war on terrorism.
And, even if Musharraf bends to Washington's threats, according to Pakistan specialists here, it's increasingly doubtful that Bhutto, who has been reaching out in recent days to other opposition parties to forge a united democratic front, would go along at this point, lest she appear to be selling out her new partners, as well as undermining whatever personal credibility she retains. Just two days ago, she told the Financial Times unequivocally that there was "no chance" of negotiations with Musharraf being revived.
One point of leverage against Musharraf that could be more effective, according to one expert, Selig Harrison at the Centre for International Policy (CIP) here, would be suspending the 100 million dollars a month that the U.S. Defence Department provides directly to the Pakistani military in counter-terrorism funding, a significant portion of which is distributed in cash and used to ensure loyalty to the chain of command.
But, led by the Pentagon, the administration appears dead-set against putting that aid into play, fearing not only that it would reduce Pakistan's already-tepid and sporadic cooperation with the U.S. against al Qaeda and the Taliban, but also strengthen Islamist elements within the military who have long resented and even resisted serving Washington's priorities.
"If we use that leverage, we could move Musharraf to do many things, but I have no reason to believe we'll use it," said Harrison, who noted that even the International Crisis Group (ICG), several of whose board members who also served in top U.S. ambassadorial posts called Tuesday in a Post column for a military aid cut-off to Pakistan, exempted the counter-terrorist programme. "Frankly, without using that leverage, I think it's too late to do anything very effective," Harrison told IPS.
The administration's Plan B, which some analysts believe is already underway, is to "reach out" to other generals more responsive to U.S. interests, starting with Kayani, to press Musharraf to step down and take action of their own, if he fails to do so.
In that respect, the choice of Negroponte as chief envoy is particularly ironic. During his tenure as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, Negroponte aligned himself unconditionally with its brutal armed forces chief, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who was so responsive to U.S. strategy in the region that his own commanders forcibly ousted him from office. Negroponte, who apparently was unaware of the barracks plot, was recalled a short time later.
© 2007 Inter Press Service