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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 November 2007, 19:34 GMT
US policy in the balance in Pakistan
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Islamabad

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte at a news conference in Islamabad on Saturday
Mr Negroponte tempered criticism of Gen Musharraf with praise
"In diplomacy, as you know, we don't get instant replies," said John Negroponte carefully, as he addressed the media before leaving Islamabad.

"I'm sure that the president is seriously considering the exchange we had."

Wise words.

It is difficult to know how significant Mr Negroponte's visit to Pakistan - and his conversation with Gen Pervez Musharraf - will prove to be, as this country's political crisis continues to unfold.

The deputy secretary of state went out of his way during his news conference to praise Pakistan's leader, before he came to criticism of Gen Musharraf's decision to impose and maintain a state of emergency.

"Under his leadership," Mr Negroponte said, great progress has been made "towards a moderate, prosperous and democratic Pakistan."

"President Musharraf," he added, "has been and continues to be a strong voice against extremism."

Elections pivotal

Only then did the criticism come.

"Unfortunately the recent political actions against protesters, suppression of the media, and the arrests of political and human rights leaders run directly counter to the reforms that have been undertaken in recent years.

"Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections," Mr Negroponte added.

And that gets to the heart of the problem facing the United States.

Gen Musharraf does not agree.

He declined to give any date on which the state of emergency might be lifted. He thinks elections can be held under emergency rule.

So will the Americans remain firmly behind Gen Musharraf, or are they having second thoughts?

'Not indispensable'

As ever, there appear to be different views among the different agencies involved in formulating US policy, but some observers sense a subtle change in emphasis.

Supporters of jailed Pakistani politician Imran Khan protest in Islamabad
Some Pakistanis reject both Gen Musharraf and US influence

Mr Negroponte "has been delivering a tough message", the former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, told the BBC.

"He's not saying that President Musharraf is indispensable. We've dropped that line. He is saying that our relationship is with the people. That we trust the army and trust the institutions there. And I think we've taken the right step."

But it is a delicate balance. The US does not want to do anything that could further destabilise Pakistan, which has been regarded since 9/11 as a crucial ally in the fight against militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

So how might the Americans try to twist Gen Musharraf's arm?

One US official in Islamabad said Mr Negroponte did raise the issue of aid to Pakistan, including military aid, with the president.

The Pakistani leader was informed that pressure in Congress for some kind of action, including possible cuts in aid, is growing.

Branching out

Mr Negroponte also held two meetings during his brief visit with the vice-chief of the army staff, Gen Ashfaq Kiyani. In fact, he spent more time with Gen Kiyani than with Gen Musharraf.

That should not necessarily raise any eyebrows, but it is a reminder that the US wants to have high-level contact with other senior military officials.

Most Pakistani analysts agree that the military remains behind Gen Musharraf. But they would be concerned by any suggestion that billions of dollars in military aid could be under threat.

So it is time to wait and see. Gen Musharraf seems to be relying on his personal relationship with President George W Bush to get him through an awkward period, when his professed commitment to democracy is being questioned as never before.

For the moment, the Americans may be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But President Bush's perception of Gen Musharraf as "a man of his word" will take quite a battering if January's parliamentary elections degenerate into farce.

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