WASHINGTON – President Bush telephoned Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf following his party's loss in parliamentary elections, but the White House said Thursday that it's up to the Pakistani people to decide the embattled leader's political future.
"It's now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government," Bush said on Wednesday during a press conference in Ghana that occurred after the phone call. "The question now is, `Will they be friends of the United States?' I hope so."
In his remarks during his five-nation trip of Africa, Bush did not mention that he had talked with Musharraf on the phone following his party's sweeping defeat in the elections.
Talking with reporters aboard Air Force One before it landed in Liberia on Thursday, White House press secretary Dana Perino would not reveal what the two leaders discussed. She said Bush has supported Musharraf all along because he "helped Pakistan on its path to democracy" and has been a good partner in the war against terrorists. Perino said it is "up to the Pakistani people to decide" whether Musharraf retains his position.
Given Musharraf's uncertain political future, Bush is looking to Pakistan's emerging new leaders for help in pressing the fight against terrorism.
Discussing Monday's vote in Pakistan, Bush said on Wednesday that the elections were "part of the victory in the war on terror."
Opposition parties won enough seats to form a new government, but were expected to fall short of the numbers needed to impeach Musharraf as president.
Bush is taking a forward-looking stance while edging toward the view that the fight against terrorism stands a better chance of success if Pakistan's government is not authoritarian, as it has been under Musharraf, and is chosen democratically.
Pakistan is on the front lines. Yet critics question whether an authoritarian leader could succeed. They also complain that Musharraf pursued Al Qaeda along the border with Afghanistan while sparing Taliban fighters.
Wendy Chamberlin, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan in 2001-02, elicited from Musharraf a commitment to fight extremists. "He never made a deal to work with us on Taliban. But somehow we have blurred the two," she said.
Chamberlin, now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said Al Qaeda fighters are often foreigners, Libyans, Saudis and Yemenis. Musharraf, she said in an interview, was willing to agree to take them on, but hesitant to fight people in tribal border areas.
"You have this odd situation where the U.S. has been calling a military dictatorship indispensable for the war on terrorism at the same time he has been dispensing with the rule of law, dispensing with constitutional protection, dispensing with democracy," Chamberlin said.
The Pakistanis "feel we talk this game of democracy, but do not support it," she said.
James Dobbins, the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, credited Musharraf with fighting Al Qaeda and making considerable progress in resolving differences with India.
On the negative side, Dobbins said in an interview, Musharraf "tolerated and on occasion collaborated with indigenous extremist movements like the Taliban and subverted the constitution."
An analyst with the Rand Corp., Dobbins said there were considerable opportunities now if the democratic parties in Pakistan are able to govern. But he also cited "substantial dangers that Pakistan society will continue to fragment."
If that happens, he said, and a stable government does not emerge, "eventually the army might feel compelled to step in yet again." Also, Dobbins said, extremists could gather further strength if there is a period of a weak civilian government.
Bush did not overlook Musharraf's authoritarian ways. He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for free and fair elections in Pakistan. Bush helped persuade Musharraf to give up his dual role as commander of the country's military.
At the same time, Bush praised Musharraf as a partner in promoting democracy and Washington gave the Muslim nation billions of dollars to help train and equip Pakistani security forces.
It is not clear how much sentiment there is in Pakistan to remain aligned with the United States in trying to counter terrorist groups.
While polls show Pakistanis are "very worried about extremism," Chamberlin said, many are opposed to cooperation with the U.S. "The Pakistani people think there is a better way of dealing with extremism than we are doing," she said. "Bombs and bullets is not the best way to do it."