WASHINGTON -- Diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad could hardly believe what President George W. Bush said to anchor Charles Gibson on ABC "World News" Nov. 20. He described Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf as "somebody who believes in democracy" and declared: "I understand how important he is in fighting extremists and radicals." Was the president of the United States issuing Musharraf a free pass to rig next month's Pakistan elections?
That was not Bush's intention. But lavishing such praise on the general who has ruled through military force led to assumptions in Pakistan that the U.S. would blink at election-rigging. Plotters in Islamabad seeking to undermine Benazir Bhutto's third try as prime minister can claim that U.S. diplomats demanding democracy in Pakistan do not represent what their president really wants.
While Bush calls Musharraf "a loyal ally in fighting terrorists," the Pentagon and CIA have not been happy with Pakistan's record against al Qaeda. That's why the U.S. government pressed Musharraf to permit Bhutto to return from exile and share power as a more dependable foe of the Islamists. Musharraf's response was imposition of martial law that amounted to a second military coup to keep him in power.
Intense U.S. pressure has forced Musharraf to resign from the army to keep his presidency and soon to lift martial law. Still at issue is how free the election will be and whether Bhutto will take office with a large governing majority. When Musharraf last week still resisted Washington's demands that he end his state of emergency, I asked Bhutto how an election could be conducted under those conditions. Her message relayed to me: "Elections under martial law cannot be free or fair."
Whether an election can still be rigged by Musharraf without martial law remains an open question, considering his preparations. He has appointed local electoral officials who will take orders. Twenty million names have disappeared from the Pakistan national voters list, whose preparation was financed by U.S. aid. When this was discovered, the government said anybody on the old list would be permitted to vote. But the new list is flawed, with millions of names repeated to permit multiple voting by individuals. All this attempts at least to minimize Bhutto's majority and force her into taking a coalition partner.
Musharraf's efforts to keep Bhutto out have been orchestrated for two years by Brigadier Ijaz Shah, who left Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to become the president's chief of civilian intelligence. The ISI, called a state within a state, is aligned against Bhutto and at the heart of any vote-rigging.
The ISI's views were expressed Nov. 19 in an article by Ahmed Quraishi, an anchor on state-owned Pakistan television, that was placed on his website and published in several of the country's newspapers. He describes an American plot "clipping the wings of a strong Pakistani military" that concludes by "toppling Musharraf, sidelining the military and installing a pliant government in Islamabad."
If Musharraf is finished, the ISI's chosen successor could be his old adversary, Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister and went into exile in Saudi Arabia when Gen. Musharraf seized power eight years ago. A recent secret meeting in Riyadh between ISI and Saudi intelligence officials arranged for Sharif's return Nov. 25. Though he intends to regain national leadership, Sharif is boycotting the January elections, in which he would lose badly. In a recent private conversation, Sharif said he hoped a coup would not be necessary to take power but did not rule it out.
Sharif in control would fit the Saudi royal family's desire for support from nuclear power Pakistan but would be a nightmare for U.S. interests because of his Islamist ties. Bush has bet heavily on Musharraf, sending an estimated $150 million a month in secret intelligence funds. But Pakistan is resisting the Pentagon's request to send additional U.S. Special Forces to the Afghan border to help Pakistan's Frontier Corps to fight terrorists. Pakistan's dedication to fighting the Islamist terrorists is diluted by officials sharing in gun-running and drug-running. The U.S. return on its massive investment in Pakistan has been disappointing, with hopes for more from Benazir Bhutto if vote-rigging does not stop her.
In my Nov. 29 column, I incorrectly reported that Trent Lott as a House Judiciary Committee member voted for the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon. Soon after his vote, however, upon learning of the evidence against Nixon, he did announce he would vote for impeachment on the House floor.