President Bush, personally intervening in the political crisis in Pakistan, told President Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday he must hold parliamentary elections soon and step down as army leader.
“You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time,” Bush said, describing a 20-minute telephone call with Musharraf. “I had a very frank discussion with him.”
It was Bush’s first contact with Musharraf since he declared emergency rule on Saturday and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush political dissent.
“My message was very plain, very easy to understand, and that is, the United States wants you to have the elections as scheduled and take your uniform off,” Bush said during a news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy held at George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Va.
For days, the White House has faced questions about why Bush was taking a softer line on Pakistan than he did, for instance, against Myanmar where military rulers cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in September.
Bush defended his response to both governments.
“Look, our objective is the same in Burma as it is in Pakistan, and that is to promote democracy,” Bush said. “There is a difference, however. Pakistan has been on the path to democracy. Burma hadn’t been on the path to democracy. And it requires different tactics to achieve the common objective.”
Musharraf 'listened carefully' to Bush
Musharraf, who has been promising to restore democracy since seizing power in a 1999 coup, has ousted independent-minded judges, put a stranglehold on the media and has put thousands of Pakistanis in jail or under house arrest since assuming emergency powers last weekend. Musharraf said his decisions to suspend the constitution and oust its top judge were necessary to prevent a takeover by Islamic extremists.
“My message was that we believe strongly in elections, and that you ought to have elections soon, and you need to take off your uniform,” Bush said.
The White House would not disclose details of the call or Musharraf’s response.
“President Musharraf listened carefully and heard what President Bush had to say,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had talked with Musharraf on Monday. “The president felt like he should give him a call today and reiterate his position,” Johndroe said.
Sarkozy said France also was concerned about the rising instability in Pakistan and urged Musharraf to hold elections as quickly as possible.
“Let me remind you that this is a country of 150 million inhabitants who happens to have nuclear weapons,” Sarkozy said. “It is very important for us that one day we shouldn’t wake up with a government, an administration in Pakistan, which is in the hands of the extremists.”
Official: State of emergency may lift soon
Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., said he expected Musharraf to lift the state of emergency soon. “It may go into a week or two, but I don’t think more,” he said.
Musharraf “has made this commitment already. The emergency will be lifted, he will doff his uniform, and the elections will be held as soon as possible,” the diplomat said on PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”
On Capitol Hill, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte repeated U.S. criticism of Musharraf’s crackdown, but described the Pakistani leader as a key ally. He said Musharraf has been so indispensable in the global war on terror that extremists and radicals have tried to assassinate him multiple times.
“No country has done more in terms of inflicting damage and punishment on the Taliban and the al-Qaida since 9-11,” Negroponte told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Their record is quite impressive.”
U.S. reviewing aid to Pakistan
The Bush administration is reviewing its aid to Pakistan, but Negroponte said he hopes the U.S. will not have to punish Pakistan. “I think that the longer the situation goes on in its present form, the more difficult it’s going to become,” he said.
Many lawmakers are skeptical. They say the U.S. should be more serious about penalizing Pakistan and that Musharraf should not be so readily praised.
“Our foreign policy should not be faith-based,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who heads the House subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia.
The war on terror is at the forefront of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, said cooperation along the border is crucial to U.S. war efforts but that communication and cooperation with the Pakistani military along the Afghan border have not been affected by the political crisis. More than half of U.S. supplies to forces in Afghanistan go through Pakistan.
“There’s good communication between U.S. and Afghan forces on the one side and the Pakistan forces on the other. And we would certainly not want to see that jeopardized in any way,” Ham said.