Dinner Plus Riot Act at the White House

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President George W. Bush conducts a joint press conference with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf in the East Room of the White House September 22, 2006.

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The 9/11 attacks left Musharraf facing an acute dilemma. The guests of his protégé next door had gone and attacked his most important international ally, and the U.S. had left him with no doubt about the consequences of failing to join its war on terror. (In his new memoir, Musharraf even alleges that Washington threatened to bomb Pakistan if it failed to comply.) Islamabad's immediate response was to beseech the Taliban to hand over bin Laden — that way, it hoped to salvage Taliban power in Kabul while still satisfying the U.S. anti-terror demands. But since the Taliban's ruling council was having none of it, Musharraf was forced to support the U.S. in its war to overthrow Pakistan's protégé. The Taliban was never crushed, however, as much as dispersed. Many of its key leaders simply retreated to Pakistan, where they continued to operate relatively openly.

And while Pakistan has consistently provided the crucial intelligence help that has allowed the U.S. to net the most important al-Qaeda leaders currently under lock and key, the domestic political cost to Musharraf of his support for the U.S. has continued to mount. Suffice it to say that Osama bin Laden is a far more popular figure in Pakistan than President Bush. Musharraf's regime has fought bruising battles with local insurgents in the tribal areas of Waziristan and also in Balochistan, and in both cases settling them has required political deals. Fully aware that a rising tide of Islamist support in Pakistan is his greatest domestic challenge, Musharraf will not be happy to do the bidding of the U.S. against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Indeed, there's something similar about the calculations of both Musharraf and Karzai for remaining in power. Both men are dependent on deals with others for their survival: Karzai relies on Western armies and the consent of an assortment of unsavory warlords; Musharraf relies on his own security forces and the ability to cut deals with various homegrown Islamist groups, including Pakistan's own equivalents of the Taliban.

The problem for President Bush to sort out is that the things Musharraf does to stay in power, where he provides crucial help in the war on terror, ultimately weaken Karzai's prospects for survival — and thereby make life that much more difficult for the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. All this may be too much to untangle over one dinner. Let's just say that a thoughtful White House protocol officer might want to hand out antacids with the toothpicks.

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