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U.S. stands by Pakistan's dictator

November 9, 2007 | Page 12

LEE SUSTAR reports on the consequences of Pervez Musharraf's crackdown.

DID THE U.S. government give a green light to the November 3 coup by Pakistan's president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf?

Although the State Department issued standard condemnations of Musharraf's move to suspend the constitution and rule by martial law, all indications are that billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid will continue to flow to his regime.

"In carefully calibrated public statements and blunter private acknowledgments about the limits of American leverage over General Musharraf, the man President Bush has called one of his most critical allies, the officials argued that it would be counterproductive to let Pakistan's political turmoil interfere with their best hope of ousting al-Qaeda's central leadership and the Taliban from the country's mountainous tribal areas," the New York Times reported.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief for the Asia Times, pointed out that "Admiral William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was on a visit to Pakistan, and he actually happened to be in the general headquarters of the Pakistan armed forces in Rawalpindi when Musharraf was giving the final touches to his proclamation on emergency rule. The political symbolism was unmistakable."

According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. has given $10 billion to Pakistan since the September 11 attacks. Three-quarters went to the military or for arms shipments, and just 10 percent went to development and humanitarian aid.

Assured of continued U.S. backing, Musharraf shut down the electronic news media, arrested hundreds of activists from opposition parties as well as judges and lawyers. When lawyers took to the streets November 5 in a replay of protests earlier this year that won reinstatement of the Pakistan Supreme Court chief judge fired by Musharraf, the police beat them with batons and arrested scores.

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THE BUSH administration views Musharraf, who first took power in a coup in 1999, as an indispensable asset in the "war on terror"--especially in neighboring Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's Taliban draws many of its fighters from the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the U.S. recently ratcheted up pressure on Musharraf to send Pakistani armed forces on the offensive in that region. Thus, following the coup, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "[W]e are mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counter-terrorism efforts."

Musharraf justified his crackdown on the basis that pro-Taliban Islamist forces were preparing a coup in Pakistan. The supposed evidence for this was a series of bombings, including one near army headquarters and an assassination attempt against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned to the country October 19.

In reality, Musharraf made his move after concluding the Supreme Court was likely to rule that his recent re-election as president was unconstitutional because he remained head of the armed forces at the time.

One of Musharraf's first acts of emergency rule was to remove the Supreme Court and other top judges at the national and provincial level. This was justified on the grounds that the courts had ordered the release of accused terrorists--making the judges de facto allies of the supposed coup plotters.

While the Bush administration is prepared to back the crackdown, Musharraf's coup wasn't what it wanted. Its first choice was a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto.

Under an agreement brokered by the U.S. and Britain, Musharraf's political allies were supposed to support Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in elections scheduled for January, making her prime minister. In exchange, Musharraf would see that corruption charges against Bhutto were dropped, and he would remain as president and head of the armed forces, in fact, if not by title.

Significantly, Bhutto didn't vow to mobilize against the coup, calling it "unfortunate" in interviews.

Returning to Pakistan from Dubai, where she had been when martial law was declared, Bhutto met with her supporters and promised to negotiate with political leaders to achieve "a course of action to reverse the suspension of the constitution."

What this means is that Bhutto may yet try to revive a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, who announced that the elections scheduled in January would go ahead--even though top political leaders from a range of parties, including Bhutto's PPP, remain in jail or have gone underground.

Despite all this, Bhutto told Time magazine in an interview that she's still prepared to carry out the power-sharing deal. The interview was headlined, "Bhutto to Musharraf: We Can Still Deal."

As author and veteran activist Tariq Ali, who is Pakistani, wrote, "Intoxicated by the incense of power, [Bhutto] might now discover that it remains as elusive as ever.

"If she ultimately supports the latest turn, it will be an act of political suicide. If she decides to dump the general (she accused him last night of breaking his promises), she will be betraying the confidence of the U.S. State Department, which pushed her this way."

Challenges to Musharraf's coup are underway, but will be difficult. Leaders of the Labour Party of Pakistan, who were high-profile participants in the pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year, have gone underground. Some 100 civil society activists were arrested in Lahore November 5 after attending a meeting of a prominent human rights organization.

International support for these activists--and protests against U.S. support for the coup--will be needed in the days and weeks ahead.

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