The Bush Administration has called President Pervez Musharraf America's most important ally in the war on terrorism for so long now that it may well become the Pakistani leader's political epitaph. He may need one soon. Three days after voters in parliamentary elections overwhelmingly rejected Musharraf's ruling party and by extension Musharraf's own presidency White House officials are digesting the reality that their man in Islamabad might not be in power for much longer.
It's a prospect plainly upsetting to Washington. "President Musharraf has done exactly that which he said he was going to do. He said he'd hold elections, he said he would get rid of his emergency law. And so it's now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government," President Bush said during a news conference in Ghana this week. "The question then is, 'Will they be friends of the United States?' and I certainly hope so."
Such churlishness is sure to play badly in Pakistan, where America's unflagging support for Musharraf is widely despised. Indeed, some officials in the U.S. State Department cringed at the less-than-diplomatic tone Bush adopted with Pakistan's soon to be new government. But the U.S. has valid concerns that political instability could disrupt Pakistan's campaign against extremists along the border with Afghanistan, says one State Department official who requested anonymity. Our position "really does come down to what's going to get our hands on the people that are up there in the northwest quicker. And a protracted constitutional challenge is not it. It's nothing personal, it's business. We're worried about the northwest and [the new government] should be too."
Forming a new government will take time, though, and its first business is far more likely to be in Islamabad than in the lawless mountainous areas where al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters are based. If the coalition plan announced Thursday by leaders of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is implemented, there is even a chance Musharraf will be impeached.
That's one reason U.S. officials have been reaching out to potential new allies this week. The State Department singles out the PPP as an example of a moderate political party that has common interests with the U.S. "That party, I mean more so than any other political party in Pakistan right now, feels acutely the threat from foreign extremists and terrorism having had their party leader recently assassinated," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the day after Pakistan's poll.
Maybe so, but the new government is likely to have different ideas on how to deal with Pakistan's rising tide of militancy, which has seen dozens of suicide bombings and hundreds killed in the past year. Both the PPP and the PML-N have said they will seek talks with the militants. In theory, that might be something the U.S. could live with (not that it would have much choice), although it is sure to push for a continuing military role as well so Islamabad can negotiate from a position of strength, says Bruce Riedel, a former top CIA and NSC South Asia analyst. "If you get a credible government," says Riedel, "it'll be better positioned to move against al-Qaeda. All the atrocities that al-Qaeda has been conducting in Pakistan in the last several months, these bombings and the murder of Bhutto, could produce the kind of backlash that Pakistan could use against al-Qaeda."
That's an argument long made by Pakistan's secular parties in their push for an end to Musharraf's reign. The coming months will surely see it tested.
With reporting by Brian Bennett/Washington