WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- For an entire day this week Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appeared to have spun out of U.S. influence, deciding to fight terrorism his own way and impose a state of emergency in his country.
Alarmed at this change, the Bush administration tasked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bring him back. She wasted no time. Hours after Islamabad officially announced that Musharraf was not attending a U.S.-backed tribal conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, and after the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad confirmed that he planned to declare a state of emergency, she got to work.
The Pakistani leader received a call from her at 2 a.m. Thursday. She spoke with him for 17 minutes but was apparently not fully satisfied with the conversation. So she called again, this time at 7:30 a.m., waking Musharraf barely after four hours' sleep, his aides said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack refused to disclose the contents of the Musharraf-Rice conversation but said: “They talked about the ongoing political developments in Pakistan. They had a good conversation.”
Later, at his Thursday morning news conference at the White House, President Bush indirectly confirmed persuading Musharraf not to impose emergency rule in his country, urging the Pakistani leader to focus on holding free and fair elections in his country.
“My focus in terms of the domestic scene there is that they have a free and fair election, and that's what we've been talking to him about and hopeful they will," he said.
Bush said he had seen media reports about an “emergency declaration” but he had “seen no evidence that he (President Musharraf) has made that decision.”
The State Department’s comments, however, were more revealing. Asked if Rice’s telephone call had influenced Musharraf not to declare a state of emergency, McCormack said: “I'll leave it to Pakistani officials to describe President Musharraf's thinking and how that thinking may have evolved.”
The spokesman said the United States has an interest in a Pakistan “that is on the pathway to greater economic openness and freedom and reform, greater political openness and freedom.”
When informed that a Pakistani minister had confirmed, in an interview with a private television channel, that Musharraf intends to declare a state of emergency, McCormack said the minister has since “revised and extended his comments to say that there is no plan at this point to impose a state of emergency.”
Diplomatic sources in Washington say the Bush administration was surprised at Musharraf’s decision to boycott the Kabul jirga and to impose emergency rule in Pakistan.
Both steps were fraught with risks and would have turned Musharraf into an international pariah, as he was when he toppled an elected government in October 1999 and most world leaders, including former President Clinton, tried to stay away from him.
The Bush administration would have found it difficult to defend a military ruler who imposes emergency rule in his country, particularly before a Congress dominated by the Democrats.
Almost at every congressional hearing on Pakistan, Democratic leaders remind the Bush administration that Musharraf is not an elected leader and that the United States needs to stop supporting a military ruler.
Last month Congress attached a provision to the 9/11 Commission act that links aid to Pakistan to its performance in the war on terror. The law also speaks of the need to promote democracy in that country.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say Musharraf’s decision to boycott the Kabul jirga can easily be interpreted by some in Congress as indicating that he is no more willing to cooperate with the United States in fighting terrorism.
The decision to hold the jirga was taken at a joint meeting President Bush hosted last September for Musharraf and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai. By backing out of it Musharraf was signaling that he no longer wants to go along with the U.S. strategy.
(On Friday, Pakistan's Foreign Office said Musharraf agreed "in principle" to address the closing session of the joint Afghan-Pakistan "peace jirga" in Kabul. The president "agreed in principle" to address the anti-terror conference after Karzai phoned him late Friday, the ministry said.)
Similarly, if he had imposed emergency rule, the Bush administration could no longer have argued before Congress, as it does now, that Musharraf is gradually moving toward implementing full democracy in Pakistan.
But Musharraf had his own reasons for doing what he apparently tried to do. As the ruler of a Muslim country where the U.S. anti-terrorism strategy is extremely unpopular, Musharraf has a difficult job.
There are people in his government, as well as in the media and the Parliament, who believe Musharraf should not have launched a major military operation in the tribal belt along the Afghan border on America’s bidding, as he did.
They argue the Americans will leave the region sooner or later and Pakistan will have to face the consequences of such an operation for years to come.
They recall that the Pashtun tribesmen living in this belt fought against the British for almost 100 years. Many also participated in the 10-year war (1979-89) against the Soviets. They are armed with sophisticated weapons, introduced there during this period to fight the Russians. The tribesmen are battle-hardened, familiar with their own difficult terrain and can continue to fight the Pakistan army for as long as they want.
The army has already lost more than 800 soldiers -- 200 since last month -- in this fight and could lose many more if it continues.
On the other hand, the United States is not satisfied with what Musharraf has so far done and is asking for more.
A national intelligence report released July 17 says al-Qaida has established a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal area and that a peace accord Musharraf signed with tribal elders in September last year allowed the al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists to strengthen themselves.
Musharraf’s senior aides say it is no longer possible for Musharraf to satisfy both his domestic critics and his allies in Washington. So he decided to opt out of the jirga and had planned to speed up the military operation against the terrorists after imposing emergency rule.
His critics, however, disagree. They say the decision to impose emergency laws in the country aimed more at preventing two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, from returning home. Both are capable of launching a mass movement against Musharraf if they are allowed to return.
The emergency would have also helped Musharraf deal with an increasingly independent judiciary, which last month reversed his decision to suspend the chief justice.
The signs are that if Musharraf seeks re-election from the current Parliament before the end of next month, as he plans to, the judiciary may prevent him from doing so. Instead, the judges could ask him to seek re-election from a new Parliament, to be elected later this year.
Imposing emergency rule would have allowed Musharraf to both curb the judiciary’s newfound independence and prevent the two former prime ministers from returning home.
At his White House news conference, Bush tried to address some of Musharraf’s concerns on continued U.S. pressure on him.
“I have indicated to him that the American people would expect there to be swift action taken if there's actionable intelligence on high-value targets inside his country,” he said.
This statement signals a softening of attitude in Washington on the issue of direct military strikes at al-Qaida targets inside Pakistan, which lately strained relations between the two allies.
In earlier statements, senior U.S. officials had clearly said that if they had “actionable intelligence” about the presence of al-Qaida leaders inside Pakistan’s tribal territory, they will launch direct military strikes at those targets instead of waiting for Islamabad’s permission.
“Now, I recognize Pakistan is a sovereign nation, and that's important for Americans to recognize that,” Bush said. “But it's also important for Americans to understand that he (Musharraf) shares the same concern about radicals and extremists as I do and as the American people do."