Robert Novak

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.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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