| Members of an Indian parliamentary delegation wearing traditional Sindhi ajraks at a reception in Karachi on Monday. (AFP)
Washington, June 23: Contrary to the hype and hoopla about Pervez Musharraf being hosted by George W. Bush at Camp David, the Pakistani President’s visit may mark the start of a process where Americans have actually started looking at alternatives to the general in Islamabad.
Musharraf’s promise on BBC’s Breakfast with Frost yesterday to step down as military chief — “may be it will be earlier than three years”, he told David Frost — may have come as a surprise to many others, but not to the Americans.
In recent weeks, White House aides have told US Congressmen pressing for more democracy in Pakistan that the Bush administration intends to work more closely with religious parties there.
The state department and US intelligence agencies are pleased with the record of Pakistan’s religious parties since September 11. They have been barking loudly without bite.
The Americans believe Pakistan’s future and US interests lie with these parties, which, they hope, will run a moderate Islamic state, sensitive to US interests.
At Camp David, Bush will gently nudge Musharraf to offer more concessions to the religious parties and work with them to bring more democracy to Pakistan.
Musharraf has a knack of being one step ahead of his rivals, critics and enemies. He knows that implicit in these concessions is a requirement that he should give up the role of army chief.
Sunday’s interview with Frost has ensured that any pressure on Musharraf to give up his uniform will be pro forma. “I do agree in principle that I should not be a combination of President and the chief of army staff and sooner or later I have to give up this appointment of chief of army staff,” Musharraf told Frost.
“Once stability comes — and let me judge it myself and I will judge it in all sincerity and honesty — I will give up the army chief's role.”
The Americans have gone to great lengths to impress Pakistan’s political class — of which the religious parties are now mainstream — that there are alternatives to Musharraf.
In the run up to the general’s arrival here, they leaked a document prepared by the US embassy in Islamabad, which outlines America’s roadmap for democracy in Pakistan.
Titled Mission Plan for 2004, it says the US wants Pakistan’s elected Parliament to “function without interference or dissolution from outside sources” by next year, according to leaked accounts of the document published in the last few weeks.
For Musharraf, implications of this plan are ominous.
It means taking away his right to dismiss governments, dissolve Parliament and be the final arbiter of Pakistan’s “national interest”.
When Pakistani journalists here contacted the state department following the leaked publication of the Mission Plan, US officials refused to either confirm or deny its existence.
One Pakistani journalist wrote subsequently that a senior state department official told him that the roadmap did not mirror either US policy or any specific government decision, but only outlined policy options.
The official was quoted as saying a lot of similar documents are prepared, sometimes to press the case for a budget proposal or to debate a likely policy line.
Sources in the administration dealing with South Asia said all this did not mean that Washington was about to dump Musharraf.
At previous US-Pakistan summits since September 11 and in follow-up decisions, the burden of US effort was to do everything possible to strengthen Musharraf's hands and keep him in power because there was no alternative.
The effort from now on will be to strengthen Pakistan, instead, and groom alternatives to the ally general in the long run.