By Arun Kumar
Washington : Did Pakistan's embattled military President Pervez Musharraf get an equally blunt message from a visiting senior US official like the one he got from another American six years ago?
That was the question being asked as US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher ended a two-day visit to Islamabad after what analysts see essentially as a balancing act between a general who has toed the US line and politicians seeking restoration of democracy.
By the general's own admission, Islamabad chose to side with the Americans after the 9/11 attacks on New York World Trade Centre's twin towers following a threat of being bombed back into stone age. The threat was reportedly delivered by then deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.
If Boucher was as direct, he would not say so – as the other Richard never did even after Musharraf's disclosure. But he did tell opposition politicians in Islamabad about "some commitments" he had wrested from Pakistan's military ruler.
Politicians sidelined since Musharraf's 1999 coup were assured that US is "pressing" for a free and fair poll, it considers a free and vibrant media a prerequisite for them, and that the general should shed his uniform if he wishes to throw his hat again into the presidential contest.
At the same time he probably told the general to "do more" in the continuing war on terror by searching for and destroying the remaining Al Qaeda and more importantly help quash the insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan, the other US ally that has bitterly complained about lack of action on Islamabad's part.
"Do more!" has been the consistent US message to Musharraf even before the current crisis in Pakistan sparked by his sacking of Chief Justice Iftikar M. Chaudhry for alleged improper conduct – a move that backfired with the media, lawyers and political activists seizing the opportunity.
Analysts suggest that Musharraf's move was prompted by a suspicion that the suspended chief justice would not provide a legal cloak to his plans to wear two hats, that of the president and the chief of army staff, as he has for the last eight years.
The deepening crisis in Pakistan has renewed suggestions from some US think tanks and the media not to count so much on a personal relationship with Musharraf – whom President George W. Bush calls his friend – and instead focus on the alliance with the country itself.
Several leading American dailies, including the influential New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal have argued that Washington should distance itself from "Pakistan's dictator", as the Times called Musharraf, and put more faith in democratic forces.
Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York based think tank, asked Bush to take a leaf out of the book of his predecessors as "giving a blank check to dictators was a bad deal".
"Sooner or later, it would lead to an explosion that would make an anti-American regime – of the kind that arose in Nicaragua and Iran in 1979 – more, not less, likely," he said.
Asking Bush to do what president Ronald Reagan did in the Philippines, Boot says he should insist that if Musharraf wants US aid to continue, he should give up either the presidency or his post as army chief and allow free elections in October that could be contested by all legitimate political parties.
But a Boot colleague at the council, Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia, says the US should resist the urge to threaten Musharraf or demand a quick democratic transition even as Americans may be increasingly frustrated with Islamabad's counter-terrorism efforts.
For such policies will only hurt US interests, not help them, he says, because the army is the only institution in Pakistan that is strong enough to take on militancy and terrorism. He calls instead for Washington to work even more closely with the Pakistani military to wean it from its links with extremists while nudging it closer to a condominium with civilian leaders.
Getting Islamabad to play a more effective role in the war on terrorism will require that Washington strike a careful balance: pushing for political reform but without jeopardising the military's core interests, said Markey, who until recently served on the State Department's policy planning staff.
"Washington's choice is not between Musharraf and democracy, nor is it between Musharraf and radical militants. Rather, the choice is between an army chief (Musharraf or a successor) in a coalition with progressives and moderates and an army chief in league with other less appealing partners," he said.
Another analyst, Spencer Ackerman, suggests there's a growing belief within the US intelligence community and in Pakistan that Musharraf's days are drawing to a close – and possibly within the next few months. It may be time for the US to face what it's long feared in the nuclear state: the prospect of chaos, rising Islamism or anti-Americanism that follows Musharraf.
Husain Haqqani, director of Boston University's Centre for International Relations, recalled that two years ago, when most people saw Musharraf as firmly entrenched in power, he had suggested that Pakistan's politicians have many flaws but without politics Pakistan cannot have a stable future as "military intervention is part of Pakistan's problem, not its solution".
Other reports suggest that Boucher visit may be part of a plan to work out a post-Musharraf arrangement in Pakistan while preserving the primacy of the Pakistani military. But going by Bush's record the general may yet get a long rope as he does not easily change his mind about friends – and Bush counts Musharraf as one.