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US goes soft on Musharraf autocracy

Washington, Aug. 25: The tail wagged the dog. General Pervez Musharraf assumed sweeping powers last week and extended his term in office after cleverly calculating that the Americans would do nothing to undermine him on the eve of a crucial diplomatic mission by deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage to India and Pakistan.

And he was proved right. In less than 12 hours after the General drove the proverbial last nail into the coffin of Pakistani democracy, President George W. Bush praised Musharraf.

“He is still tight with us in the war against terror, and that is what I appreciate. He understands that we have got to keep al Qaida on the run.... And I appreciate his strong support,” Bush, who is continuing his working holiday said in Oregon.

It is reliably learnt that the US state department was told to dilute its criticism of Musharraf on the day he arbitrarily acquired the constitutional right to dissolve an elected parliament and appoint judges.

The department’s deputy spokesman, Philip Reeker, lamely said Musharraf’a action “could make it more difficult to build strong democratic institutions” in Pakistan.

He also said: “We have made quite clear that part of the war on terrorism includes looking for democracy because where there’s democracy, there’s less opportunity for extremist and terrorist enterprises to thrive.”

An earlier draft, prepared for Reeker in response to possible questions on Pakistan during his briefing, is said to have been much stronger in its criticism of Musharraf.

But it was watered down because Washington wanted to avoid any controversy in Islamabad similar to the furore in India after secretary of state Colin Powell’s statement on Kashmir in New Delhi last month.

Even so, Pakistan assailed Reeker’s comments, virtually calling them ill-informed. The spokesman of the foreign ministry in Islamabad, Aziz Ahmed Khan, said critics of Pakistan were “not fully aware of the facts”.

Khan described the 29 major constitutional amendments rammed through by Musharraf as “necessary to strengthen democratic institutions” before the October elections.

Realising that his gamble of pulling off his regime’s consolidation of power had succeeded in Washington, Pakistan’s state television repeatedly aired the US President’s praise for Musharraf for 24 hours after Bush made his statement.

The Pakistan President’s foreign office singled out the state department for attack and made it clear that such criticism would not restrain the military junta’s efforts to manage democracy in Pakistan.

If anyone in Pakistan was in doubt that Musharraf’s policy of taking Washington for a ride was unworkable, there was further proof the next day that the General’s aim was unerring.

On Friday, the US signed an agreement with Pakistan to reschedule $ 3 billion of the latter’s debt. The Congress is expected to approve the debt relief in the next financial year starting on October 1.

In the most mealy-mouthed comment heard from any US administration on the suppression of democracy since the collapse of Communism, Bush, however, said American officials will make sure that Musharraf is aware of the importance of restoring civilian rule.

“Obviously, to the extent that, you know, our friends promote democracy, that’s important,” he said.

After the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, Musharraf has mastered the tactic of timing his domestic moves in conjunction with bilateral developments involving Washington.

He promoted himself from Chief Executive to President when his then foreign minister Abdul Sattar was in Washington. Sattar was personally able to smooth the rough edges of that decision here.

Again, Musharraf prepared the ground for acknowledging the death of American journalist Daniel Pearl by conflicting remarks on the issue when he was in the US only a few days before Pearl’s death, which reflected poorly on Pakistan, was acknowledged.

But by last week’s antics, Musharraf may have crossed the biggest hurdle in consolidating his power, knowing that the absence of harsh American criticism would have a similar ripple effect elsewhere in the world.

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