ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The Bush administration's continued backing of President Pervez Musharraf, despite the overwhelming rejection of his party by voters this month, is fueling a new level of frustration in Pakistan with the United States.
That support has rankled the public, politicians and journalists here, inciting deep anger at what is perceived as American meddling and the refusal of Washington to embrace the new, democratically elected government. John D. Negroponte, the deputy secretary of state, said Thursday during a Senate panel hearing that the United States would maintain its close ties to Mr. Musharraf.
Pakistanis say the Bush administration is grossly misjudging the political mood in Pakistan and squandering an opportunity to win support from the Pakistani public for its fight against terrorism. The opposition parties that won the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections say they are moderate and pro-American. By working with them, analysts say, Washington could gain a vital, new ally.
The American insistence that Mr. Musharraf play a significant role, they say, will only draw out a power struggle with the president and distract the new government from pushing ahead with alternatives to Mr. Musharraf's policies on the economy and terrorism, which are widely viewed here as having failed.
"I've never seen such an irrational, impractical move on the part of the United States," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "The whole country has voted against Musharraf. This was a referendum against Musharraf."
Over the last week, more than a dozen editorials and commentaries have appeared in Pakistan's leading newspapers accusing the United States of "meddling" in the country's affairs. Many have taken particular umbrage at statements by President Bush and other senior officials praising Mr. Musharraf, despite his lack of support among voters.
A series of postelection meetings between American Embassy officials and Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the victorious Pakistan Peoples Party, have also been criticized.
American officials have met three times with Mr. Zardari since the election. They have met twice with Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister whose own opposition party won the second most seats in Parliament.
In the meetings, American officials urged both leaders to work with moderate forces and Mr. Musharraf, according to officials from the two parties and the United States. It is the insistence to include Mr. Musharraf that rankles Pakistanis.
American officials said the meetings were routine. "This is standard diplomacy," said an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Pakistani observers called the request that the parties work with Mr. Musharraf inappropriate, given his sweeping defeat. Typical of the outrage was an editorial published Sunday by The News, an English-language newspaper, with the headline "Hands Off, Please!"
"No further efforts must be made to intervene in the democratic process in Pakistan," the editorial read. "The man who the U.S. continues to back has in many ways become a central part of Pakistan's problems."
A senior American official in Washington acknowledged that there was worry within the Bush administration about being seen as meddling. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, conceded that American attempts last year to construct a power-sharing deal between Mr. Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto "didn't really work out quite as we'd hoped." Differences remained between the president and Ms. Bhutto, who was killed Dec. 27.
"The last thing we need is to be seen by the Pakistanis as interfering again," he said.
But while American officials have sought to portray the United States as neutral, their statements underscore that Mr. Musharraf remains at the center of the United States policy here.
On Monday, Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said President Bush continued to support Mr. Musharraf for "all of the work that he's done to help us in counterterrorism."
"Now it will be up to the people of Pakistan to see what their new government will look like," she said. "But the president does certainly support him."
During his Senate hearing on Thursday, Mr. Negroponte said, "I think we would, as a general proposition, urge that the moderate political forces work together, and of course President Musharraf is still the president of his country, and we look forward to continuing to work well with him as well."
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Mr. Negroponte refused to call for the reinstatement of the judges dismissed last year by Mr. Musharraf when he imposed emergency rule. "We have been silent on this subject," he said. Then he added, "to the best of my knowledge."
That silence by American officials has led Pakistanis to accuse the United States of ignoring the will of voters, analysts say. The issue fueled anger against Mr. Musharraf and the protest vote against him.
In Pakistan, each American statement has been dissected in the media and widely perceived as overt American pressure.
In an editorial on Monday, the Daily Business Recorder, a leading English-language newspaper, criticized a call Mr. Bush made to Mr. Musharraf after learning of what it called his allies' "electoral debacle." It also cited Richard A. Boucher, an assistant secretary of state, as saying after the election that Mr. Musharraf "remains important to Washington."
Mr. Bush and other administration officials still regard Mr. Musharraf as a significant player and as a force for stability in Pakistan, and one who could regain his standing, said an official involved in the policy deliberations.
The official said that American officials were waiting to see if the opposition could form the two-thirds majority needed to render Mr. Musharraf a powerless, ceremonial president, or even impeach him. The Americans recognize that the opposition parties have long feuded and think they could fail to unite.
"Musharraf still thinks he has options, which he does," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The administration thinks so as well, but only so long as he does not overplay his hand."
Over the last year, American assessments have repeatedly proven wrong. Before the Feb. 18 elections, a senior American intelligence official predicted in a briefing to journalists that no party would win a clear majority and that Mr. Musharraf would remain the strongest political figure in the country.
Wamiq Zuberi, chief editor of the Daily Business Recorder, said Washington "obviously doesn't have the correct appreciation of the environment here." He and others said the American backing for Mr. Musharraf had generated consternation among analysts who believe that Mr. Musharraf is not only deeply unpopular but also that he has performed poorly of late in the campaign against terrorism, polarizing Pakistan and striking a series of truces with militants.
"I've followed this for years, and I've never seen it so clear, apparent and continuous," Nasim Zehra, a Pakistani analyst and writer, said of what she considered the American interference. "It's not surprising, given the mindset in Washington."
Central to the Bush administration's support is the feeling that Mr. Musharraf retains the loyalty of the Pakistani Army, even though he stepped down as army chief in December. Current and former administration officials say they fear that withdrawing American support from Mr. Musharraf would alienate Pakistan's military, country's most powerful institution.
"He is still valuable for his relationship with the army," said Daniel Markey, who helped coordinate Pakistan policy in the State Department from 2003 to 2007. "He is someone who the United States should work with - and will work with - for fear of alienating that important partner."
Western military officials say Pakistan's armed forces - Mr. Musharraf's last potential bastion of support - have shifted loyalty to his chosen successor, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
And they say General Kayani will choose stability over saving Mr. Musharraf. "If Kayani and Musharraf were diametrically opposed," said a Western military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "I think Kayani would prevail."
Ms. Zehra, the analyst, said that General Kayani had distanced himself from Mr. Musharraf by issuing a surprise order in January barring all officers from holding government posts or engaging in politics.
The move effectively prevented Mr. Musharraf from using Pakistan's military intelligence agencies to manipulate the election. The loyalty of Pakistan's military is irrevocably shifting behind General Kayani, she said. "The army will be led by its chief always," she said. "The former chief is always the former chief."
Jane Perlez and Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, and Helene Cooper from Washington.
© 2008 The New York Times