By Jim Lobe
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.