Is The U.S. Out On A Limb With Musharraf?

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf has declared war on what he claims are "500 to 600 foreign terrorists" operating in tribal areas along the Afghan border. On Mar. 15, Musharraf told tribal chiefs in Peshawar that a Libyan member of al Qaeda was behind two failed attempts to assassinate him in December and that he would crack down if the terrorists did not surrender. A day later a fierce gun battle broke out between Pakistani troops and suspected militants near the border, resulting in at least 38 deaths.

Extremist On Deck?

The assassination attempts underscore just how shaky the Bush Administration policy toward Pakistan has become. Since the events of September 11, Washington has depended heavily on Musharraf for its war on terror -- and its hunt for al Qaeda. Yet two days before Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to visit Pakistan on Mar. 17, security forces defused a massive bomb outside the U.S. consulate in Karachi. That threat followed astounding news in February that Pakistan's top nuclear scientist had illegally exported nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea -- supposedly without the government's knowledge. "Pakistan has failed as a democracy and as a military autocracy," warns Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution. "We should be worried about the long-term future of Pakistan."

Worse, what would happen if another assassination attempt against Musharraf were to hit its mark? It could throw Washington's policy into disarray. According to Pakistan's constitution, if Musharraf were killed or incapacitated, the chairman of the Pakistan senate, Mohammedmian Soomro, would succeed him as acting President. And Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali would continue as chief executive. Both generally support Musharraf's current pro-Western policy.

But the wild card is the Army. Pakistani military analysts predict that the army core commanders would likely appoint General Mohammed Aziz to succeed Musharraf as Army Chief of Staff. Aziz currently holds the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, a rank senior to Musharraf's. What's impossible to know is whether the commanders would support Soomro as acting President or decide to name Aziz as President -- just as Musharraf currently heads both the army and the country. An Aziz presidency could deal a major blow to the U.S. He is viewed as a strident nationalist and less supportive of Washington.

The rise of a radical general would also help the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) -- a coalition of religious parties that controls a fifth of parliamentary seats -- gain influence. "The MMA would provide the political platform [the new general] needs, and this will be dangerous and destabilizing," warns Ejaz Haider, a Lahore political analyst.

About the least frightening scenario for a post-Musharraf Pakistan could be quick elections, if the secular former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif returned from exile and demanded them. Something similar happened in the late 1980s, when Pakistan's then-leader, General Zia ul Haq, died in a plane crash and the other generals allowed elections. But in their previous stints in power, neither Bhutto nor Sharif proved able to master Pakistan's turbulent politics for long. The Bush Administration is no doubt crossing its fingers that any would-be assassins in Pakistan fail.

By Naween A. Mangi in Karachi and Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay

Edited by Rose Brady

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