The U.S. doesn't have enough information to predict the outcome of events in Pakistan or whether President Pervez Musharraf can hold on to power, according to a Bush administration official.
The Bush administration is being forced to await developments over the next few days to see whether a prime ally in the fight against terrorism, and a nuclear-armed nation, returns to stability, said the official, who briefed reporters yesterday on condition of anonymity.
President George W. Bush called on Musharraf yesterday to reverse the emergency decree that suspended Pakistan's constitution, dissolved the country's Supreme Court and shut down independent broadcasters.
``We made clear that these emergency measures would undermine democracy,'' Bush said at the White House, making his first public remarks on the situation. He urged Musharraf to schedule elections ``as soon as possible'' and to step down as head of the army.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan has been an important U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups operating along the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. That was illustrated by Bush adding praise for Musharraf to criticism of his actions. He called the Pakistani leader ``a strong fighter against extremists and radicals'' and noted that ``they tried to kill him three or four times.''
Position `Abundantly Clear'
Bush, who hasn't spoken directly to Musharraf about his actions, refused to say what the U.S. would do if Musharraf doesn't restore the constitution or relinquish his army post.
``All we can do is continue to work with the president, as well as others in the Pak government, to make it abundantly clear the position of the United States,'' he said.
At the State Department, spokesman Tom Casey, used tougher language, saying ``we are extremely disappointed'' by Musharraf's decision, and noted that the U.S. will be reviewing its assistance, echoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's pledge a day earlier.
Musharraf suspended the constitution on Nov. 3 for the second time since he took power in a 1999 military coup. His government fired the country's top judge, ordered the arrest of hundreds of lawyers, judges and opposition supporters and said elections due by Jan. 15 may be delayed.
The administration official said entreaties in recent weeks to Musharraf from U.S. officials, including Rice, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and Admiral William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, failed to head off the emergency decree.
Back to Elections
``We made it clear to the president that we would hope he wouldn't have declared the emergency powers he declared,'' Bush said.
The U.S. is pressing Musharraf to go forward with parliamentary elections originally set for January. The administration official said there were some encouraging signals from Pakistan yesterday, including a statement by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz that voting would go on as scheduled.
Asked whether the U.S. has an assessment of Musharraf's hold on the government, the official said the administration was unable to predict how the situation would be resolved.
Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former prime minister and a potential competitor for political power, urged the Bush administration to keep up pressure on Musharraf.
``What happens in Pakistan will affect the lives of the people of Pakistan but I'm afraid since Pakistan is a nuclear- armed country, it is facing a threat from a radicalization and terrorists.'' Bhutto said on CNN's ``The Situation Room'' in an interview from Karachi. ``Whatever happens in Pakistan is also going to impact the rest of the world.''
The U.S. is reviewing the financial assistance it provides to Pakistan in the wake of Musharraf's emergency decree. The administration official said the review is mostly an assessment of what U.S. laws governing how aid is distributed might be triggered because of the declaration.
Musharraf's government is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in Asia after Afghanistan, having received more than $10 billion since 2001. The administration requested $785 million for Pakistan in 2008, about half of which is for the armed forces.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. lifted sanctions related to Pakistan's 1998 nuclear test and waived restrictions on assistance that were put in place after Musharraf seized power. Congress extended Bush's waiver authority and Bush annually invoked it, which he could do as long as he determined that foreign assistance would help with further democratization.
``This development could make even more tenuous a presidential waiver based on that democracy-related language,'' said Alan Kronstadt, a specialist in South Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Beijing for talks with Chinese officials, and Rice both said the review will have to take into account U.S.-backed counter-terrorism operations.
``This is a complicated matter,'' Rice said yesterday in Jerusalem.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the main U.S. aid programs that may be subject to review include about $300 million a year in financing used to buy military equipment, an additional annual $10.2 million for counter-proliferation programs and $2 million a year for military training programs. ( Bloomberg )