| A policeman in front of the administrative centre in Islamabad on Saturday. (AP)
Washington, Nov. 3: The “bushfire” lit by Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan this evening means another grave new crisis for the beleaguered general’s chief patron, President George W. Bush.
If Musharraf succeeds in his latest effort to trample over what little democracy was left in Pakistan, it will be yet another blot on America’s long, chequered record in Islamabad.
Admiral William J. Fallon, head of the US military’s Central Command, was personally present in Rawalpindi as final touches were given to the declaration of emergency.
Musharraf, typically, has taken a calculated risk that he can ignore warnings from Washington against declaring an emergency and simultaneously smother opposition to his rule in a way he was unable to do during much of 2007.
Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had said as signals were coming from Islamabad of an imminent declaration of emergency that “the US wouldn’t be supportive of extra-constitutional means” by Musharraf to remain in power.
She told reporters on her way to Turkey to put out another “bushfire” of air attacks on Kurdish mountains started by the Nato ally: “We have been very clear that the important steps that have to be taken in Pakistan is (sic) that, first of all, Pakistan needs to prepare for and hold free and fair elections at the end of the year (or the) beginning of next year... that the political space needs to be prepared by moderate forces beginning to work together... and that the moderate forces have a common enemy in the extremists who are so much in evidence.”
This evening, she stuck to the theme, calling the emergency a step backwards for democracy.
Rice described Musharraf’s move as “highly regrettable” and told CNN in Turkey that she hoped Pakistan’s intention was to have free and fair elections.
State department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement that Musharraf had promised to hold elections in January and the US urged him to do so.
“The United States is deeply disturbed by reports that Pakistani President Musharraf has taken extra-constitutional actions and has imposed a state of emergency,” McCormack said. “A state of emergency would be a sharp setback for Pakistani democracy and takes Pakistan off the path toward civilian rule.”
He added that the US “stands with the people of Pakistan in supporting a democratic process and in countering violent extremism”.
Admiral Fallon, according to accounts reaching here, warned Musharraf that it would be difficult, given the compulsions of pre-election US politics, to continue to get Congressional approval for the huge American assistance for the Pakistani military if it resorted to extra-constitutional actions.
However, Fallon was not in Rawalpindi primarily to plead the case for Pakistani democracy. Instead, he offered US troops to fight the ongoing critical battles against religious militants, who now control nearly half of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province.
Musharraf, according to these accounts, rejected Fallon’s offer even though Pakistani soldiers are surrendering to militants in large numbers.
Even as these parleys were going in the Pakistan army’s general headquarters, two districts in western Afghanistan fell into Taliban hands this week, the latest yesterday.
For Musharraf, these developments will be of immense help as he persuades the Americans that his regime — with or without the trappings of democracy — is what stands between moderation and militancy.
Yesterday, Tom Casey, the state department’s deputy spokesman, said in an apparent contradiction of Rice’s warning to Musharraf: “We are going to continue to work with the government of Pakistan to help them respond to this (militant) challenge and to help us deal with the common threat that these groups pose.”
For Bush and Rice, whose diplomats are in a stunning revolt against compulsory postings to Iraq, the latest “bushfire” lit by Musharraf is something they wish he had not done.