Washington — Pakistan's military leader is betting that having flouted strong U.S. warnings not to declare a state of emergency he can now hold off his patron's pleas for a quick return to constitutional rule and go on banking billions in American anti-terrorism aid.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is probably right for now. But the strongman's triumph may be short-lived. Some of Musharraf's backers in Washington quietly agree with his political opponents at home that he cannot hold power for long.
A week after imposing the equivalent of martial law, Musharraf remains in control of nuclear-armed Pakistan. His U.S. allies watched in distaste as protesters were bloodied and potential political rival Benazir Bhutto was confined to her home.
A shrewd leader who has maneuvered out of tough spots before, Musharraf may find a way to tamp down internal resistance, offer the West sufficient democratic concessions and stay on. That would be a relief to many in the Bush administration who see few good alternatives to a continued bargain with a leader pledged to fight extremism and keep nuclear weapons under effective lock.
If Musharraf has miscalculated, he may be swamped by the rising current of political opposition at home or sidelined by his own cronies in the military leadership. Pakistan's army is widely considered the country's real power base, and Musharraf's fate probably has as much or more to do with the generals' calculations as it does with voters in any election Musharraf may allow.
U.S. spokesmen and President Bush himself have delivered only mild public rebukes to the army leader in hopes that the man who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999 can find a political compromise.
The Bush administration hopes tensions and street protests subside, avoiding massive unrest in a nation on the fulcrum of the U.S. effort to fight terrorism and extremism in the Muslim world. U.S. officials do not rule out a revival of a U.S. and British proposal for Musharraf to share power with Bhutto, a former prime minister who returned to Pakistan after Musharraf's declaration.
Sensitive to the perception that the United States is dancing to one man's tune, the Bush administration has started referring broadly to "the Pakistani leadership" and contacting other senior military leaders. The back-channel contacts include some who may have pull with Musharraf or even pose an alternative to his rule.
"We join the people of Pakistan in their continued concern about the state of emergency and curtailment of basic freedoms," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Friday. "We urge Pakistan's authorities quickly to return to constitutional order and democratic norms."
Johndroe said the wording was "absolutely not" an indication that the United States is giving up hope that Musharraf will heed the U.S. advice.
"Our position is clear to him and to everyone in Pakistan," Johndroe said. "But I would also say there are a lot more people involved on the ground than just one person, and the point is that all of these people need to work together. There needs to be a dialogue among all the various political parties, and that is the best way to end this situation."
To U.S. relief, Musharraf has pledged to hold elections early next year. There's no guarantee he will do so, nor that he will follow through on a list of other U.S. demands including that he give up his post as head of the army and govern as a civilian.