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by Ali Gharib

White House Turned Blind Eye to Musharraf's Terror Links

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- When Pakistani president and former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf stepped down on Monday, it marked the official end of the flawed Pakistan policy of the Bush administration.

But the next chapter in the complicated relationship remains uncertain and likely will take time and patience from the U.S. to patch together.

Musharraf, who rose to power with a military coup in 1999, was forced to step down after a long slide that ended with impeachment threats from the young, democratically elected government. Ten months after he declared a state of emergency and dismissed the country's Supreme Court in an effort to stymie threats to his power, Musharraf bowed to pressure from Pakistan's six-month-old civilian government and ceded his position.

According to Dawn, a Pakistani English-language paper, Bush -- who had centerd his Pakistan policy strictly on the man he considered a personal friend, Musharraf -- was the "last holdout" even within his own administration to be convinced that Musharraf had to go. Turning the diplomatic chain of command on its head, Dawn reported that it was Bush's ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, who finally convinced him cut loose the former dictator.

Long before the constitutional crisis and state of emergency, though, many commentators had become critical of Musharraf as a U.S. ally. Even as Musharraf paid lip service to the U.S. regarding the fight against Muslim extremism in the border regions with Afghanistan -- and collected the billions in aid that tough talk brought -- in 2004 and 2006 he cut deals with militants that allowed them to operate more freely so long as they did not cause him political trouble.

That freedom is thought to have further enternched the Taliban in the border regions, creating a stronghold for al Qaeda and a launching ground for the current revamped Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where Musharraf's policy allowed easy cross-border raids.

While questions remain about Musharraf's future outside government, most of the issues being raised in the following days have revolved around the coalition rule that led to the dictator's final demise.

The government is formed by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asaf Ali Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) of Nawaz Sharif. The leaders of the two parties or their families have been battling each other for power during all the civilian-ruled periods of the past 30 years.

Though Musharraf's ouster was a major victory for the relatively young civilian government, the problems beneath the surface of the unified opposition to Musharraf are likely to come to the fore.

"There's no doubt that there was one thing that the two parties agreed on: getting rid of Musharraf," Vikram Singh, an Asia policy expert at the Center for a New American Security with a focus in Pakistan and Afghanistan, told IPS. "Musharraf stepping down, at some level, closes a chapter for Pakistan. It's the last gate on the way back to democracy, but that doesn't mean that democracy will be easier than dictatorship."

An issue of particular importance to the U.S. is how the civilian leadership will deal with the militant extremism in the border regions. There are fears that the government will follow the Musharraf tack and cut deals with the extremists to protect a fragile hold on power.

With the military trying to cede responsibility for the issue, it has become one of the most contentious facing the coalition. According to respected Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the army and the government have failed to reach an agreement to slow the growth of the Pakistani Taliban beyond their traditional areas of strength, partly due to old rivalries between the two institutions.

"The army wants the government to lead and take the political responsibility for going after the extremists, so that the army's present unpopularity does not get worse," wrote Rashid in a guest column for the BBC. "But Mr. Sharif has no intention to become the 'cat's paw' of the army while Mr. Zardari so far cannot hammer out a common coalition position."

While Zardari and the PPP are ostensibly more pro-Western, Sharif, wrote Rashid, "wants no concessions to the army and offers no support to the war against Taliban extremists. Aware of his right wing vote bank, he has little time for American demands."

The U.S. pressure has been considerable, and Rashid noted that the U.S. has threatened more bombing on the Pakistani side of the border if the army and government cannot handle militants.

Singh also told IPS that another punitive U.S. response to inaction could be to condition aid, but cautioned that the key to strengthening the government is offering a serious and real relationship with Pakistan.

"We have to also be offering a long-term partnership with Pakistan. [Pakistani leaders] suspect that if we succeed with al Qaeda we will pull away from Pakistan," Singh told IPS. "We've done little to assure them that we see something beyond this very focused effort on terrorism."

"We're foul-weather friends," he said. "When there's trouble, we're there."

Singh sites this dynamic as explaining the failed approach with Musharraf -- fear of abandonment engendered a half-hearted approach to battling terrorism that would neither extinguish the extremism that brings aid nor completely shake U.S. confidence in how the aid was being used.

But all the experts agree that civilian leadership and democracy are beneficial to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

"There is no escape from the fact that Pakistan will be better off with a civilian government than a military dictatorship. By and large, the administration has accepted this," said Frederic Grare of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He cautioned, however, that making hard demands of the coalition government is difficult when institutional issues and the power structure of the civilian-military relationship have not been worked out.

"Pakistan will become completely a democracy when there is civilian ownership of the security apparatus and foreign policy," Grare told IPS. "The real difficulty [for the U.S.] is to make sure that with your actions, you don't make the fragile civilian government more fragile."

But the situation appears to be worsening -- increasing Taliban violence and gains in Afghanistan, and two bombings this week in Pakistan that have left nearly 100 dead -- and the U.S. may quickly grow impatient.

"Although the U.S. will be expecting things to change speedily," wrote Rashid, "They are unlikely to do so for now."

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Albion Monitor   August 22, 2008   (

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