WASHINGTON – Besieged by domestic unrest and the revival of Pakistan's largest opposition parties, led by exiled prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will likely survive upcoming elections, but not unscathed, say foreign policy analysts.
"I don't think Musharraf is going to come out of this without conceding some power," predicted Kamran Bokhari, a senior analyst for the Middle East and South Asia at Strategic Forecasting Inc. (STRATFOR), a private U.S. intelligence firm.
And while Musharraf is in very little danger of losing his leadership in elections — elections he has pledged will be free and fair and held by year's end — the United States is keeping arm's length from the Pakistani leader just in case things don't work out.
"Slowly, and cautiously, they are not pushing Musharraf, not putting more pressure on him right now," said Bokhari, who grew up in Islamabad. On the flip side, "(The Bush administration) is not siding with the opposition, but at the same time they are not coming out and saying, 'We're backing you all the way.' ... There are too many moving parts, too many players, you don't know which way this will turn."
"It is a significant cost to the U.S. to be seen supporting a regime that is so highly unpopular," said Alexis Debat, a terrorism specialist with the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C. He suggested that continued support for Musharraf, while calculated by the United States, is a great tool for recruiting extremist elements inside and outside Pakistan.
Domestic Challenges, International Implications
Musharraf, 63, is now facing among the most trying of times since assuming questionable legitimacy as president following a bloodless coup seven years ago.
He sits on a powder keg of Islamic insurgency, political and social unrest, as well as pressure from the United States to choke the growing influence of Al Qaeda and the Taliban on his country's borders.
If that weren't enough, a radical cleric just set up a Taliban-like court in a mosque in the capital city of Islamabad. Meanwhile opposition parties have been leading protests for a month, calling for Musharraf to step down amid criticism that he suspended the country's chief justice and detained dissidents who questioned his rule.
Although increasing religious radicalism and the rise of Taliban-like vice squads have contributed to Musharraf's headaches, the anti-American mullahs remain too fractured and unpopular to do Musharraf grave harm, say analysts.
Another reprieve for the U.S. — if opposition parties use the protests and the peoples' fear of extremism to push Musharraf aside, a new government would likely work in similar ways with the United States as it fights the War on Terror.
Musharraf's main political opposition, the Pakistan Peoples Party, is secular and reportedly already in power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf's government. The exiled Bhutto, who has led PPP from abroad and has vowed to return to Pakistan despite the threat of arrest or assassination, said she wants to see greater anti-Taliban reform in the country.
"The political forces and establishment don't want the mullahs to expand their influence," said Bokhari.
However, Bhutto, a regular visitor to Capitol Hill and the White House, carries her own baggage. Though she touts a reformist agenda, she faced widespread allegations of corruption during her time as the elected prime minister from 1988 to 1996.
Her government was dismissed after numerous charges against her, though she claims the pending cases are all politically motivated.
On top of that, while PPP is formidable opposition, the Pakistani military remains the strongest institution in Pakistan and the backbone of Musharraf's power.
"He has the military in his pocket," Debat said, who recently returned from Pakistan where he met with an "overly relaxed" Musharraf. Debat said that short of assassination — of which Musharraf has dodged several attempts — the Pakistani president isn’t going anywhere yet.
Washington: Wait and See
Possibly sensing that Musharraf has more fight in him, Bush administration officials have been reluctant to criticize him about last month's suspension of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Nor have they criticized the subsequent crackdown on protesters, the detaining of dissidents or the "disappearing" people who Musharraf claims, but many Pakistanis doubt, are victims of Al Qaeda.
"This is a matter that the Pakistanis need to resolve within the confines of their laws and constitution," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on April 3. "Obviously, we're watching it quite closely. We encourage Pakistan's leaders to continue down the pathway to democracy. One way to do that is to instill a sense of confidence among the population that the government will adhere to the rule of law and enforce the rule of law."
A month earlier, McCormack said the United States is "not going to dictate to him or anybody else (or) the Pakistani people exactly what those changes are gong to be or specific steps that they might need to take."
Musharraf suspended Chaudhry on March 9 for "unspecified abuses." Musharraf Critics say Chaudhry was relieved of his duties because the high court was about to rule against Musharraf on two key questions relating to the legitimacy of his leadership.
The first question relates to whether Musharraf can insist on maintaining his dual posts as military chief and president. The other question is over Musharraf's re-election and whether it will be determined by the current legislature, which many believe has been rigged in Musharraf's favor through undemocratic election practices, or by a new legislature chosen in the upcoming polling.
Whatever the outcome, it is likely Musharraf will ensure his ultimate political survival, said Christine Fair, specialist in South Asian military and political affairs for the United States Institute of Peace. Fair argued it is not in the best interest of the U.S. to continue to support Musharraf's undemocratic activities.
"My main concern is, democracy interuptus does not produce good governments," she said, noting that the United States has made it a policy to support democracy throughout the world. "And then you are supporting this guy."
U.S Pressure in Other Ways
Meanwhile, Musharraf's American critics are not just concerned about democratic reforms. In exchange for the nearly $10 billion Pakistan has received from the United States in financial aid and counterterrorism funds since Sept. 11, 2001, pressure is increasing from Washington, D.C., to crack down on militant activity, particularly in the northwest frontier and Baluchistan Province, along the Afghan border.
"The United States smashed Al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan in 2001, only to see it transferred to northwestern Pakistan," Bill Roggio wrote in the recent edition of the Weekly Standard. "The refusal of the Musharraf regime to deal with this situation, and the active participation of elements of the Pakistani military, intelligence and political elites in supporting our enemies, are worrisome for our efforts in the War on Terror — and threaten the very existence of a non-jihadist Pakistani state."
To be sure, militant activity is thriving in Pakistan. Experts like Debat say new Al Qaeda and Taliban movements are gaining influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, while fresh foreign fighters are bringing more sophisticated tactics like the latest improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from Iraq.
Musharraf has made a series of controversial deals with older Taliban groups in the tribes along the border, hoping they will protect the region against these newer Al Qaeda elements.
Meanwhile, the militant tribal leaders and the mullahs remain fractious, but could unite against Musharraf to disastrous ends if he pushes them too hard, said Muqtedar Kahn, professor of international relations and politics at the University of Delaware.
"Most people who know the situation know he could be pressured to do more, but he won't be able to deliver more," he said.
Many in Congress are losing patience with Musharraf's balancing act, as attacks on NATO forces over the Pakistani border in Afghanistan have increased in the last year. Lawmakers are looking at the billions in aid and wondering what they are getting out of it.
"It's largely been a free lunch," Fair said. "Pakistan has absolutely very little fear of what we could do."
Congressional Democrats are attempting to tie future funding to Musharraf's performance in pursuing Al Qaeda, but the Bush administration has so far made no move to support such a scheme.
"(Musharraf's) done what he could do best. If he pushes too hard he could have domestic instability," said Kahn, who suggests the Bush administration is well aware of the circumstances.
"The Bush administration knows he is delivering a lot and they will support him strongly," he said. "The Democrats may destabilize Pakistan by attempting to undercut Bush."
Analysts suggest the administration is looking at all of the uncertainty in Pakistan and betting on what they know, while trying not to look hypocritical for not condemning Musharraf for undemocratic behavior.
"They'd like to have continuity," said Bokhari. "Obviously there is a lot of uncertainly. They can't completely support him and they can't completely oppose him."