Credibility Gap Washington's Pakistan Problem

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was never a model democrat. But his assumption of emergency powers puts his American ally in a tough spot. When it comes to fighting terrorism in the region, the strong-arm leader is the only game in town.

The debate in Philadelphia last Tuesday, among the Democratic candidates for president, was getting more and more intense. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and the rest were bickering their way toward a strategy for dealing with Iran and its nuclear program.

Finally, Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and likewise running for the White House, lost his temper. Why is everyone talking about Iran, he wanted to know?

"The fact of the matter is the Iranians may get 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium," Biden said. "The Pakistanis have hundreds, thousands of kilograms of highly enriched uranium." Then he asked: "What is the greatest threat to the United States of America: 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Tehran or an out-of-control Pakistan? It's not close."

'A Very Tricky Situation'

One week later, Biden's words sound almost prophetic. The risk that Pakistan -- often dubbed the "most dangerous country in the world" by terrorism experts due to its explosive mix of Islamist extremists, nuclear weapons and capricious military officials -- may flip-flop from being a close ally of the United States to becoming an American nightmare seems more real than ever. "(President Gen. Pervez) Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan is bad news for the White House," Hassan Abbas, a former high-ranking Pakistani government official now conducting research at Harvard University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's a very tricky situation."

Indeed, Musharraf's strategy of muzzling his opponents amounts to an open provocation of the US government. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked until the last moment to rein in the Pakistani president. His imposition of military rule is also a personal humiliation for US President George W. Bush, who hailed Musharraf as a "defender of freedom" during the Pakistani leader's official visit to Washington last fall. Now Musharraf has even mocked the United States by justifying his move with a reference to Abraham Lincoln's restriction of civil liberties during the American Civil War.

The Bush administration, of course, could easily have foreseen Musharraf's move. For years, politicians in Washington have wilfully ignored the fact that Musharraf -- who seized power by a military coup in 1999 -- has never striven to be a perfect democrat.

"Now he is finally showing what he really is: A military dictator whose main concern is preserving his own power," says Abbas. Musharraf saw that power increasingly eroding, particularly due to the US call for free elections in Pakistan. But instead of becoming a rare coup for the US strategy of exporting democracy to the Muslim world, Pakistan has become yet another black mark. The strategy's credibility was already heavily in doubt -- all major US allies in the region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have major deficits when it comes to democracy.

Little has changed in that respect. Notorious autocrats such as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak have returned -- after some initial and short-lived concessions to democratic protocol -- to ruthlessly suppressing every form of opposition. Criticism from Washington has been muted at best. The current situation in Pakistan is once again revealing to the world America's strategic shortcomings when it comes to promoting democracy in the region.

High-Stakes Poker

Still, Washington's Pakistan policy isn't likely to change. In their dealings with Islamabad, the Americans resemble a poker player who has pinned all his hopes on one card -- and can now no longer fold. To put it more precisely: The Americans have bet the farm on Musharraf. The calculation was a simple one: An imperfect, power-hungry general leading Pakistan is preferable to an Islamist hothead.

Only Musharraf, Washington seems to believe, can be relied on to keep Pakistan's extremists in check and fight al-Qaida along the Afghanistan border. The US has channelled $11 billion to Pakistan in recent years to help him in that fight. Only about 10 percent of that money went to development aid, with most of the rest going directly to Musharraf's military.

The money will likely continue to flow. Even following Musharraf's assumption of emergency powers, Washington's reaction has been subdued. Aside from a number of stern statements to the press, only one meeting between military advisors has been cancelled. A slashing of foreign aid to Pakistan is most likely not on the cards, Hassan Abbas believes.

Rice mentioned on Sunday that she would be reviewing that aid, but during a Washington press conference following meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Bush didn't say a word about such a step. The US president did express his concern about the situation in Pakistan, and he reiterated that elections should be held as soon as possible and that Musharraf needs to resign from his military post. But Bush also repeated his past praise for Musharraf's role in the fight against extremists -- mentioning that they had already made a number of attempts on the Pakistani president's life.

Teresita Schaffer, director of the South Asia Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doesn't think much will change. "I don't really see any alternative to continuing to work with him," she told the International Herald Tribune. "They can't just decide they're going to blow off the whole country of Pakistan, because it sits right next to Afghanistan, where there are some 26,000 US and NATO troops."

Bin Laden Is More Popular Than Musharraf

For the moment, the US administration seems to be hoping that Musharraf will come around. Still, even if he does try to turn back the clock, his credibility will have sustained a major blow. "And without credibility, you can't do anything against terrorism," says Hassan Abbas. Indeed, polls indicate that Osama bin Laden is already more popular in Pakistan than Musharraf.

Current developments are also threatening to spike Musharraf's relations with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who recently returned to Pakistan as part of a power-sharing deal with Musharraf following talks mediated by the US. While Bhutto still hoped to once again become Pakistan's democratically elected prime minister, Musharraf's antics have made it clearer than ever that she will have to strike some sort of a deal with the military.

The current crisis, though, also makes it less likely that Washington will re-evaluate its close partnership with Pakistan -- and whether it has been successful in combating extremism -- any time soon. "The many billions sent to Pakistan have not been much use in the struggle against terrorism," Abbas believes. "The main beneficiary has been the Pakistani military. They have received about 65 percent of the money and spent it mainly on heavy weaponry and aircraft, even though fighting terrorism requires investments in intelligence and development aid."

Even the handing over of between 500 and 700 terror suspects to the United States during the years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks can hardly be described as a complete success. "We still do not know today how many of them really possessed important information," Abbas says. More recently, US government officials in Washington have been expressing growing frustration over Musharraf's seeming inability -- or unwillingness -- to go after al-Qaida militants and Taliban fighters currently holed up in the mountains of western Pakistan.

The current theory, expressed by Stephen Cohen from the Brookings Institution, is that Musharraf may have some rationale for his hesitancy. Cohen argues that the Pakistani military still sees India as the country's primary threat and may even want to preserve the Taliban to keep Indian influence in Afghanistan in check.

Democratic Party presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton sharply condemn the White House's Pakistan policy. Alternative ideas, however, have been few and far between. Congress, where Democrats have the majority, has yet to announce a review of foreign aid to Pakistani, despite having indicated that such a review was imminent.

As Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden received a confidential briefing about the situation in Pakistan at the White House on Saturday. Being in the middle of his campaign, one can hardly expect Biden to have anything nice to say about Bush. But during a pubic appearance on Sunday, the foreign policy expert seemed genuinely appalled.

"This administration has a Musharraf policy, not a Pakistan policy," Biden said. "Its hands are pretty well tied right now. And it's put itself in a very difficult position."

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