INSIDE Washington, the frustration of doing business with Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is matched only by the fear of living life without him.
For years, the notion that Mr. Musharraf is all that stands between Washington and a group of nuclear-armed mullahs has dictated just how far the White House feels it can push him to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives who enjoy a relatively safe existence in Pakistan.
The specter of Islamic radicals overthrowing Mr. Musharraf has also limited the Bush administration’s policy options, taking off the table any ideas about American military strikes against a resurgent Al Qaeda, which has camps in Pakistani tribal areas.
But just how fragile is Mr. Musharraf’s hold on power? And might the United States have more leverage than it believes?
The question of how to handle Mr. Musharraf is critical at a time when intelligence officials widely agree that the Taliban is expanding its reach in Pakistan, gradually spreading from remote areas into more settled regions of the country.
The fear within Washington that Islamic extremism has become a dominant force in Pakistan has been stoked in part by Mr. Musharraf himself. Some analysts say his warnings are used to maintain a steady flow of American aid and keep at bay demands from Washington for democratic reforms. He often invokes the dangers of Islamic radicalism when meeting American officials in Washington and Islamabad, and his narrow escape in two assassination attempts is frequently cited by President Bush as evidence of his tenuous grip on power.
While the Islamists would surely take power in any way possible, an examination of polling data and recent election results — however suspect in a less than democratic country — provides little evidence that Islamists have enough support to take over the country. If anything, they would likely control only select areas.
The last time Pakistan went to the polls in 2002, religious political parties received just 11 percent of the vote, compared with more than 28 percent won by the secular party led by Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister.
And that election may have even been a high-water mark for the Islamists, who were capitalizing on surging anti-American sentiment after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Even though the Iraq war has also inflamed anti-Western attitudes, these sentiments do not seem to have translated into electoral gains for Islamist parties.
Islamist politicians received a drubbing in local elections in 2005, gaining less support than expected in their power base in the tribal areas. In September, a poll by the International Republican Institute, a respected organization affiliated with the Republican Party that helps build democratic institutions in foreign countries, found that just 5.2 percent of respondents would vote for the main religious party, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, in national parliamentary elections.
Although the poll found that this party was the most popular in Baluchistan, the southwestern province where Taliban support is strong, Islamist leaders lagged far behind both Mr. Musharraf and Ms. Bhutto, as well as another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. It is also thought to be unlikely that a successful attempt on Mr. Musharraf’s life would mean wholesale changes to the power structure of Pakistani politics.
For decades, the military has been the most dominant institution in Pakistan. If Mr. Musharraf were to fall to an assassin’s bullet, American diplomatic and intelligence officials say, it is unlikely that there would be mass uprisings in Lahore and Karachi, or that a religious leader in the Taliban mold would rise to power.
“I am not particularly worried about an extremist government coming to power and getting hold of nuclear weapons,” said Robert Richer, who was associate director of operations in 2004 and 2005 for the Central Intelligence Agency. “If something happened to Musharraf tomorrow, another general would step in.”
Based on the succession plan, the vice chief of the army, Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat, would take over as the leader of the army and Mohammedmian Soomro, an ex-banker, would become president.
General Hyat, who is secular like Mr. Musharraf, would hold the real power. But it is unclear whether General Hyat would be as adept as Mr. Musharraf at keeping various interest groups within the military in line. American officials say that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the I.S.I., continues to play a direct role in arming and financing the Taliban’s re-emergence in western Pakistan, and there are worries about the relationships between some senior military leaders and Islamist groups.
The ties between Islamic militants and Pakistan’s security services are decades old, with the two sides working together most closely during the mujahadeen battles against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Analysts generally agree, however, that the military remains a largely secular institution that takes seriously its role as protector of Pakistan’s identity and would not allow Islamists to become the dominant force in Pakistan.
While many in Washington agree that the threat of Islamic militants has become something of a useful foil for Mr. Musharraf, there is a rift about just how the White House should be treating the Pakistani president.
Some counterterrorism officials at the Pentagon argue that to the extent that Mr. Musharraf’s government feels real pressure, it is from those within the Pakistani military who worry most about alienating Washington and jeopardizing the flow of military aid to Pakistan.
The money and military hardware from the United States is crucial for Pakistan’s armed forces to keep pace with archrival India. Because of this dependency, some officials argue, the Bush administration has powerful leverage to force Mr. Musharraf to crack down on extremism.
On the other side of the debate, some State Department officials say that while Islamic militants probably would not topple Mr. Musharraf, why roll the dice?
Mr. Musharraf might be frustrating to work with, they say, but he has the virtue of being a known quantity. And with Iraq spiraling out of control and an emboldened Iran flexing its muscle throughout the region, aren’t things complicated enough without taking a chance on a nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 165 million people?
“How many degrees of difficulty do you want to add?” asks one Bush administration official. “This is one equation that we don’t want to touch.”
Mr. Musharraf’s turn against the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and his status as a personal target of the militants, won him a reputation as a man Washington could do business with. He developed a rapport with President Bush, and received rock star treatment during a recent book tour through the United States, even appearing on “The Daily Show.” (He shared tea and Twinkies with Jon Stewart.)
In the United States, he is considered the voice of moderation, but Mr. Musharraf has also navigated the often brutal world of Pakistani politics by keeping his friends close and his enemies closer. Although he speaks ominously about the Islamists’ rising power, he has regularly brokered agreements with them in the provinces as a way to gain allies amid the growing support nationally for civilian challengers like Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto. Pakistan experts say this is smart politics, but the agreements have also effectively strengthened religious groups in the rural areas and made punishing Islamic militants in those areas more difficult.
“To the extent that religious extremism is a concern, it is a concern partly of Musharraf’s and the military’s making,” said Husain Haqqani, a professor of international relations at Boston University and an adviser to several Pakistani prime ministers. “And, he has been very effective in turning this around into getting more support from the U.S.”
The Democratic takeover of Congress has given the Bush administration its own useful foil in its negotiations with Pakistan. During a recent meeting in Islamabad with Mr. Musharraf, Vice President Dick Cheney said that the White House has no intention of cutting aid to Pakistan, but mentioned that Democrats had threatened to make aid conditional on a crackdown on Islamic militants in the tribal areas.
Congress is unlikely to ever stem the flow of aid to Pakistan. But invoking Congressional frustration with the country could play on Pakistani fears that the United States is engaged in an ever tighter embrace with India.
And within Pakistan, that is considered the greatest threat of all.Top