U.S. Mostly Mum on Musharraf Power Grab

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's (search) potentially explosive announcement last month that he would not step down as military chief and rule his country as a civilian drew barely a whisper from the U.S. media and Washington officials.

The silence, say foreign policy analysts, reveals as much about U.S. policy toward Pakistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as any public remarks could. While U.S. officials may not wish to criticize Musharraf, analysts say it might be a mistake in the long term for the United States to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's military ruler.

"The tensions are between long-term objectives and short-term objectives," said Ashley Tellis, foreign policy scholar at Carnegie Institute for International Peace (search). "Our objective in the short term is to defeat Al Qaeda (search), and we essentially need Musharraf as the head of the army that is assisting us. The long-term objective is to have Pakistan a democracy, meaning you don't want a military chief as head of the country."

Just before the new year, Musharraf, who has held office since taking over in a bloodless military coup in 1999, announced he would not honor a promise he made in 2003. He had pledged to hang up his uniform at the end of 2004 in return for broader constitutional powers allowing him to dissolve Parliament and the prime minister's office at his discretion.

His announcement came weeks after the largely pro-Musharraf Parliament approved a bill allowing him to retain his position as army chief while serving as president.

Musharraf explained on Dec. 30 that the reversal was necessary for the security of the country, suggesting that "any change in internal or external policies can be extremely dangerous for Pakistan."

Little has come in the way of a response from Washington. Asked by Agence-France Press on Dec. 31 about the development, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said, "This is a judgment for the Pakistani people to make.

"The Parliament provided the means for him to do this. What I have to look at is where Pakistan has been, back in 2001, and where it is now, and the significant changes that have taken place as it has moved toward democracy," Powell added.

But Muqtedar Khan, professor of political science at Adrian College in Michigan, said Musharraf's move directly "undermines the claim that this is a democracy and also suggests he is unsure about his own position in Pakistan.

"In many ways (Musharraf) is an autocrat," Khan said. "He is more liberal than the Middle East dictators," but as long as he changes the constitution to accumulate more power and continues to wear a military uniform, "Pakistan will remain a non-democracy."

Khan said he doubted that Washington would raise much of an objection because to do so would create tensions between the two countries and among political parties in Pakistan.

Since Sept. 11, the United States has given more than $1 billion to help beef up the Pakistani military's so-far unsuccessful search for Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden (search), who is believed to have been in hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Other U.S. aid to Pakistan has increased and trade agreements have been more favorable to Pakistanis. In March, Pakistan was given "non-ally status" in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (search). One month ago, President Bush promised to help Musharraf with new weapons systems.

Tellis suggested that Pakistan has astutely used its geographic proximity and strategic role in the War on Terror — Musharraf has helped to crack down on Taliban (search) and Al Qaeda in his country and is allowing U.S. military on its bases. His claims to have kept more radical Islamic elements at bay is a powerful form of leverage.

"What [the Bush administration is] struggling with is the brute reality of what they cannot negotiate around," said Tellis. "They recognize that if they push too hard, what [Musharraf] is likely to say is take a hike."

One of those areas where the United States refuses to push is related to Musharraf's response to the investigation of top nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, who helped turn Pakistan into a nuclear power and has admitted to selling nuclear materials to countries like North Korea, Iran and Libya for decades.

In 2002, Musharraf announced that a government investigation had uncovered Khan's activities. Since then, Pakistan has been unwilling to let International Atomic Energy Agency (search) officials question Khan, who had been in charge of Pakistan's nuclear program since 1976 and is considered by many to be a national hero. Musharraf instead assured the U.N. agency that Pakistan can handle the Khan inquiry itself. Powell suggested in his Dec. 31 interview that the United States is so far satisfied with Musharraf's attention to the problem.

"Musharraf is the best ally we have in Pakistan, and the best ally we are likely to get in the foreseeable future," said Jim Phillips, foreign policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "We don't want to undermine him, but at the same time we can't back away from our goals of promoting democracy in Pakistan and in the Muslim world."

John Gershman, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus (search), a Washington, D.C., think-tank, said the Muslim world is watching closely and may be tired of what they see as a double standard.

"I think Pakistan has benefited from a double standard at least as much as Saudi Arabia in the post-9/11 period," he said, "and I think it's a problem when we have really hard evidence that the absence of democratic institutions provides a fertile proving ground for fundamentalist Islamicist activity."

Meanwhile, protests against Musharraf, which range from former ruling parties to more extreme Islamic groups, have not stirred up enough outrage among Pakistanis to create any concern for Musharraf, according to observers.

"The opposition at this point is completely divided and feckless. Unless he fails disastrously by a silly or costly mistake, I think people will tolerate it for a little while longer. There is a process of some kind of social and economic stability right now," said Tellis.

He added that the Bush administration might privately encourage Musharraf to start transitioning to a civilian rule. But anything more than that could show weakness in Musharraf's position.

"The relationship with the U.S has to stay stable," Tellis said.