Jun 16, 2007
Posted by Saim Baig
Pakistan should "move back to democratic elections and civilian rule," a senior U.S. official said Friday, while indicating Washington would not join the pressure on President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to drop his dual role as army chief before he seeks a new term.
The Pakistani president, who seized power in a 1999 coup and became a key U.S. ally against terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has said he will ask Pakistani lawmakers for a new five-year term as president this fall.
However, his plans are threatened by a growing protest movement at home triggered by his March 9 suspension of the chief justice and efforts to clamp down on the media.
Critics are calling for him to give up his military post and seek another presidential term only after year-end parliamentary elections in which opposition parties hope to make gains.
Remarks by some U.S. officials have suggested that Washington is pressing Musharraf harder for democratic change. However, others — including President Bush — have made clear that securing Pakistan's cooperation against al-Qaida and the Taliban is a more pressing concern.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, interviewed by several Pakistani television channels Friday, said Washington felt that "it's time for Pakistan to move back to democratic elections and civilian rule."
However, he said "the issue of a free and fair election in much more fundamental" than how Musharraf deals with the issue of his occupying both the presidency and the powerful army leadership.
"That particular question needs to be answered but I think we have a bit of patience in seeing it answered at whatever is the appropriate time," Boucher said, according to excerpts of the interviews released by the U.S. Embassy.
Some influential U.S. lawmakers have called for the Bush administration to reduce its support for Pakistan because of its perceived failings in dealing with the Taliban and in restoring democracy.
Boucher lauded the "enormous" achievements and sacrifices made by Pakistan, which has captured hundreds of al-Qaida suspects, including several leaders, and lost hundreds of soldiers battling militants near the Afghan border.
However, he said more had to be done in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to eliminate "spaces where terrorists can plot and plan," including in Pakistan's wild border region, which is considered a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden.
Boucher, who has been in Pakistan since Tuesday, was joined Friday by both Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Adm. William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Central Command.
A Pakistani foreign ministry official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity, insisted the timing was a coincidence and that all three visits were of a "routine nature."
During a meeting with Negroponte, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri "reaffirmed Pakistan's resolve to fight extremism and terrorism" and expressed thanks for U.S. funding for development projects in the border region that the government says will provide a long-term answer to militancy there.