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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 11:39 GMT
US hedges its bets on Musharraf
By Brajesh Upadhyay
BBC News, Washington

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice
Ms Rice says the US is prodding Pakistan towards a democratic path

Speaking with more than one tongue is never an easy task. For the Bush administration, it seems, that is the only available option on Pakistan for now.

Pakistan-watchers in Washington suggest that the administration's patience is wearing thin and every day that Gen Pervez Musharraf refuses to back down on the state of emergency places him in direct conflict with the US.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is being sent to Pakistan later this week to try to defuse the crisis.

Yet, officials carry on issuing measured responses to the events in Pakistan, even arguing for patience towards the country's military ruler.

"It's a real fine dance," says George Perkovich, a South Asia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In the coming days if it looks like Gen Musharraf is on his way out, the administration will distance itself from him - but if they feel he's got another life they will try not to alienate him, he says.

"They will not take a firm position one way or another. It will be wishy-washy," Mr Perkovich says.

Uncertainty

Analysts say Washington does not want to be in a situation where it walks away from Gen Musharraf and yet he holds on to power for, say, another nine months.

"What happens during that period if Washington still has to deal with him. It's going to be a really ugly time," says Daniel Markey, who until recently served on the state department's policy planning staff.

And it is this uncertainty that compels the Bush administration to tread cautiously.

Rally in Pakistan
Public opposition to Musharraf is wide

A power sharing deal between Gen Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto would have been ideal so far as Washington is concerned.

The general is still seen here as someone who could potentially provide a bridge between a civilian leadership and the army and at the same time would provide continuity in leadership.

But former Prime Minister Bhutto's announcement that she can no longer work with Gen Musharraf has further complicated the situation.

Daniel Markey says if Gen Musharraf is not going to be a part of the solution, then members of the Bush administration are going to have to look for alternatives.

In fact, there are already indications that efforts are under way to cobble together different possible alternatives.

Behind the scenes

An unnamed state department official was recently quoted by The Washington Post as saying that the US embassy in Islamabad was reaching out to civil society leaders, military officials, community leaders and political parties to build options. Just in case.

"We don't want to be seen to be looking, but we want to make sure we talk to a wide array of people," the official reportedly told the newspaper.

Mr Markey, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says a lot of this will happen behind the scenes.

President Musharraf
President Musharraf is under pressure to unwind decisions

"Washington may approach other members of Musharraf's team to feel them out and see whether they would be willing to engineer a transition," he says.

Marvin Weinbaum, former Pakistan analyst at the state department, says he would be amazed if the process hadn't already begun.

"It's almost inevitable that the military will come to the conclusion that Musharraf can't be part of the new formula if normalcy has to be restored," he says.

People's will

In fact, over the past week, the administration's emphasis has been more on the "will" of Pakistani people than the commitment to stand by Gen Musharraf.

On a Sunday television show, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice also underlined this gradual shift from what many call here Musharraf policy to Pakistan policy.

"This is not a personal matter about President Musharraf. This is about the Pakistani people and the United States has been dedicated to helping the Pakistani people come to a more democratic path," she said.

But experts say these statements do not mean much when it comes to the situation on the ground.

"The reality is the US just wants something orderly and stable in Pakistan that's effective in hunting terrorists. Beyond that they don't care that much," says George Perkovich.



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