WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 (UPI) -- The future ruling setup in Pakistan may include both President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the two leaders who have little in common except a desire to work with the United States against Muslim extremists.
Together they would form what the White House and the State Department describe as a “moderate political center” in a country Washington believes may tilt toward extremists if not handled carefully.
“We want to see a moderate political center form there, following democratic processes,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe.
“We are encouraging those who are widely considered … forces for moderation … to come together to support a moderate center in Pakistani politics that is a way to fight against extremist elements in Pakistan,” added State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
While Washington’s main concern -- as both Johndroe and McCormack told reporters Thursday -- is keeping Pakistan on its side in the fight against terrorism, there is also a desire to help a key U.S. ally -- Musharraf -- in trouble.
The Bush administration believes an alliance with Bhutto could give Musharraf his best chance of defusing the domestic crisis and remaining president.
Diplomatic circles in Washington say the Musharraf-Bhutto deal is almost ready and can be announced soon. But the issue that can derail the arrangement -- Musharraf retaining his position as the army chief -- remains unresolved.
While addressing a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York earlier this week, Bhutto expressed her frustration at the general’s reluctance to resolve this issue.
“Time is running out. Is it just talk, or is it going to turn into a walk?” she asked, adding it was important to conclude the negotiations this month because "we are risking our popularity even by having this dialogue.”
A senior government minister in Islamabad called Bhutto's comments political posturing. He, however, conceded the president is thinking about the issue.
Musharraf and Bhutto met last month in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to finalize a deal for power-sharing. Reports in the Pakistani media say not only did the United States arrange the deal, but a U.S. representative also attended the meeting as a moderator.
Officials in both Islamabad and Washington refused to comment on such reports but acknowledge Musharraf and Bhutto are talking to each other and the United States backs these talks.
Since early this month, Bhutto has been in New York apparently to spend some time with her husband who lives there. But she also has launched a major media offensive, sometimes giving half a dozen interviews a day, to explain why she, an opposition politician, is negotiating with a general.
"General Musharraf says and has committed himself to a Pakistan following a moderate path," she said. "To that extent, if we could get the moderate forces to work together for a transition to democracy I think, in the present circumstances, it would be helpful."
Sources in her Pakistan People’s Party say Bhutto moved to New York also because this enables her to stay in touch with both Pakistani and U.S. officials while conducting indirect talks with Islamabad over the proposed deal.
The deal, if finalized, would allow her to return home, participate in the elections scheduled later this year, and then head a coalition government as prime minister.
But before she embarks upon this journey of political rehabilitation to a country she left in 1996 amid allegations of flagrant corruption and widespread kleptocracy, Musharraf has to change the constitution to accommodate her.
An amendment he made after toppling another elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in October 1999 bars a third term as prime minister. Both Bhutto and Sharif have had two terms each, though they never completed a full term of five years.
The government also has to drop corruption charges against her and assure her she will not be arrested if she returns.
In a recent interview, Bhutto listed some of the confidence-building measures she expects Musharraf to take to facilitate the deal, urging him to lift restrictions on political party leaders such as herself and grant "indemnity for all parliamentarians and for all holders of public office."
"For us and him to work together, there have to be these gestures," Bhutto said.
Even if such measures are taken, there will still be the issue of Musharraf retaining two positions simultaneously -- the president and the army chief.
For Bhutto to agree to work under a president who is also an army chief will be political suicide. She will have no power but will have to share the responsibility for all popular and unpopular measures the government takes, particularly in the fight against terrorism.
The U.S.-led war against terrorism is not popular in Pakistan. Actively pursuing this war will hurt her popularity. If she agrees to take this risk, the least she would expect is to have some real power, which current Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz does not have.
Aziz is a political nonentity. He is there because of Musharraf’s support, without which he cannot win even a local government seat from anywhere in Pakistan.
Bhutto, however, has a strong political base in all four provinces, which even years of anti-Bhutto campaigning by successive governments failed to erode.
Besides, Bhutto also knows Musharraf needs her more than she needs him to deal with the current political crisis, which started with the suspension of the chief justice two months ago and refuses to go away.
So she is unlikely to accept Musharraf both as president and the army chief. If Washington wants a deal between her and Musharraf, it will have to convince the general to quit the army and work under a prime minister as a civilian president.
The question is: Will Musharraf agree to do so? After all, in a British parliamentary system that Pakistan follows, the president has no power.
All indications are the United States is trying to help evolve a formula that distributes power between Musharraf and Bhutto.
This new arrangement, if finalized, will be different from the traditional British parliamentary system because it will have a distribution of power between the president and the prime minister.
Even if this arrangement is made, there is no guarantee it will succeed. Both Musharraf and Bhutto are strong-willed people not accustomed to taking orders. It will be particularly difficult for Musharraf, who has ruled Pakistan since 1999 as an autocrat, to share power with a civilian politician he has never respected.
So even if the United States succeeds in forming a “moderate political center” in Pakistan, there’s no guarantee that it will work.