Friday, November 16, 2007
By Emily Wax and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 16, 2007; A24
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 15 -- Inside call centers and in high school social studies classes, at vegetable markets and in book bazaars, Pakistanis from different walks of life here say that ever since President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule two weeks ago, he's been the most unpopular figure in the country. But running a close second, many say, is his ally: President Bush.
"We used to love America. Give me Tom Cruise and a vacation in Florida any day," said Parveen Aslam, 30, who like many Pakistanis has relatives in the United States. "But why isn't the U.S. standing up for Pakistan when we need it most? Is America even listening to us? We are calling them Busharraf now. They are the same man."
While many Pakistanis lament that the Bush administration is involved in their country's politics, they also see the United States as the only force strong enough to do what they say is necessary to temper the crisis: pressure the military-led government to restore the constitution, release thousands of political prisoners and lift restrictions on the news media.
The White House has taken note as Pakistanis' ire has risen. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte is due in Islamabad on Friday, carrying what diplomats say will be a tough message for Musharraf, who has been a U.S. ally on counterterrorism. Negroponte is also expected to visit with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was placed under house arrest in Lahore on Tuesday just hours before she was to lead a procession to Islamabad in protest of emergency rule. [The Pakistani government lifted the detention order early Friday.]
"Let's just say the visit is better late than never," Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general, said of Negroponte's trip. "The U.S. is saying what they should have said a long time ago."
Bhutto, in a telephone interview with foreign reporters Thursday, said she would press the Bush administration to facilitate an "exit strategy" for Musharraf. "I don't believe it's in the United States of America's interests to have Pakistan implode. I give my fair, honest advice that the longer that General Musharraf stays, the more dangerous Pakistan will grow."
Musharraf, meanwhile, went on Pakistani television Thursday night to defend emergency rule as the best way to battle terrorism.
"Things would be much worse in Pakistan if we didn't have emergency rule," he said. "I'm not a selfish or greedy man. I am doing this for Pakistan."
Musharraf's government announced that Mohammedmian Soomro, chairman of the upper house of Pakistan's parliament and a Musharraf loyalist, would be sworn in as the country's caretaker prime minister on Friday. Thursday would have marked the final day of the government's current term had the president not extended it by declaring emergency rule on Nov. 3.
The caretaker government will oversee parliamentary elections scheduled for early January. Opposition parties have said that those elections will be inherently unfair because their most prominent leaders are now under house arrest or in prison.
The detention of political opponents is among the many factors causing the Pakistani public to lose patience with Musharraf, whose approval ratings have dropped to dismal levels. But patience with Musharraf's U.S. backers is also wearing thin. Even before the latest crisis, Pakistanis were highly suspicious of U.S. intentions. A poll released in September by the Washington-based nonpartisan group Terror Free Tomorrow found that only 19 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States.
Pakistanis' relationship with the United States is a complicated one. Many see Bush's "war on terrorism" as a war on Islam. At the same time, they view the United States as a source of prestige and prosperity. Pakistanis wealthy enough to afford a U.S. education for their children display bumper stickers from elite American universities in the back windows of their cars.
"But we've lost our faith in the U.S. now," said Aqdos Aftab, 15, who said her classes have been filled with discussions on why the United States is still backing Musharraf. "I thought America stood for human rights."
Pakistan receives much of its foreign aid from the United States -- more than $10 billion since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Musharraf pledged to help the Bush administration in counterterrorism efforts. With that money has come leverage to influence Pakistani affairs.
"We are a banana republic, and nothing here happens without orders from the Americans," said Danish Yazdani, an artist who sends her children to the American School in Islamabad. "At the end of the day, we know the U.S. can make Musharraf change, not the people of Pakistan."
In testimony to Congress last week, Negroponte said Musharraf was an "indispensable" ally of the United States. Such remarks have led many Pakistanis critical of Musharraf to fear that Negroponte's visit will serve as little more than a photo opportunity.
"Frankly speaking, I'm not all that hopeful," said Omar R. Quraishi, op-ed editor of the News, an English-language paper in Pakistan. "I think the U.S. is not going to cut off aid anytime soon, although publicly it may make some noise."
In explaining the need for emergency measures, Musharraf has cited growing Islamic extremism, particularly in the North-West Frontier Province. In the province's Swat Valley, fighters loyal to a pro-Taliban cleric have taken control of several towns in recent weeks. They have also occupied some police stations and other government buildings in Swat's Shangla district, residents say.
On Thursday, the Pakistani military announced that its forces in northern Swat, backed by helicopter gunships, had killed at least 33 guerrillas, although residents described some of them as civilians.
Government critics, in a sign of their skepticism about Musharraf, said the timing of the operation was suspect.
"We don't know what the game is, but certainly it's no coincidence that each time a high-level U.S. official comes to Pakistan, there is a major military operation and claims of killing dozens of militants. And Pakistanis are raising eyebrows," said Fazal Rahim Marwat, who teaches at the University of Peshawar.
"Even a layman on the street says that the army is going to conduct operations in Swat because Negroponte is coming," he added. "The government just wants to show some kind of performance in the war on terror."