Can Musharraf Keep His Grip On Pakistan?

It was a tough weekend for the Bush administration, which in recent months has staked so much of its counterterrorism policy on Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Despite Bush's long-standing support for Musharraf, the White House proved unable to prevent the Pakistani leader--who came to power in a 1999 military coup--from staging what is, in effect, a second coup. Musharraf declared a state of emergency, suspended the Constitution, shut down private television stations, imprisoned as many as 1,500 opposition figures, and sacked, for the second time, the man emerging as his chief rival--Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Musharraf, who acted ahead of a Pakistani Supreme Court decision on challenges to his recent re-election, clearly feared a negative ruling. Petitioners had been challenging Musharraf's dual role as Army chief and president as unconstitutional. In declaring an emergency, Musharraf insisted that the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for January would still be held, but some officials warned that they could be delayed up to a year.

Protesters, led by thousands of lawyers in dark suits, took to the streets Monday, only to be met by tear gas, clubs, and police paddy wagons. In the capital, Islamabad, hundreds of security forces sealed off government buildings and the Supreme Court.

For the United States, Musharraf's move came as a double blow. Not only does it throw a nuclear-armed nation at the center of the global counterterrorism effort into even greater turmoil, but it also flies in the face of the Bush administration's central strategy of promoting democratization as a means of countering extremism.

Even worse, President Bush has been particularly effusive in his praise for Musharraf's efforts against terrorists, repeatedly commending him for being brave in the face of multiple assassination attempts. Even as some officials in the State Department, worried about Musharraf's dwindling popularity, have been trying to move more toward a policy of supporting the Pakistani democratic process, Pakistanis have largely seen U.S. policy as being almost exclusively pro-Musharraf.

That is unlikely to change soon. Despite some tough rhetoric after Musharraf's emergency declaration, U.S. officials have signaled that they are unwilling to cut off billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan's security forces. For Washington, the Pakistani efforts against the al Qaeda terrorist network remain the top priority.

Fighting has been intense in recent weeks in the country's western tribal areas, where al Qaeda is believed to have rebuilt a safe haven. Musharraf, despite the political crisis, is likely to continue the fight.

But along with the renewed protests from liberal and secular opposition figures, Musharraf faces continued pressure from religious conservatives, who resent his counterterrorism policy. That leaves Musharraf appealing to those who prefer the stability of the status quo, and relying on his security forces to enforce that stability.

By Kevin Whitelaw