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Pakistan and U.S. Politics Meet

The long road to the White House will culminate with the U.S. presidential election in November. On February 18, Pakistanis are scheduled to choose a new parliament. How are U.S. and Pakistan politics and policies affecting each other's political landscape?

Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf has become an election issue in two countries a half a world apart. In the United States, questions about President Musharraf's reliability and effectiveness as an ally against terrorism have been raised in the presidential campaign and congressional hearings.

Presidential hopeful U.S. Senator Barack Obama created a furor in Pakistan when he suggested in August, and repeated at a debate in January, that American forces might unilaterally cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan in pursuit of terrorists. "We have to press them to do more to take on al-Qaida in their territory. What I said was, if they could not or would not do so, and we had actionable intelligence, then I would strike," says Obama.

But as President Musharraf made clear in a January 25 speech in London, any such unilateral action was both militarily and politically unpalatable. "The man on the street in Pakistan does not want any foreign intrusion into Pakistan. It's an issue of the sovereignty of our country. And the United States and anyone who talks of that must understand the sensitivity of the man in the street. So I don't think this is possible at all, that any foreign forces will be allowed into Pakistan. It is militarily unwise, and, politically, I don't think it's acceptable to the people of Pakistan," said Mr. Musharraf.

Pakistan Politics

With elections in Pakistan scheduled for February 18, President Musharraf has found himself increasingly unpopular for his efforts to rein in an increasingly independent judiciary, curb the media, and sideline any significant political opposition. Many critics say he has been too willing to give in to U.S. wishes in the fight on terrorism.

Opposition leaders have been stepping up their calls for President Musharraf to step down. Pakistani politician Imran Khan says Washington's unwavering support of Mr. Musharraf is fueling anti-American sentiment. "It seems as if 160-million people do not matter, but one man matters as long as he is willing to do what ever he has to to serve the U.S. interests. In my opinion," says Kahn, "this is a flawed policy because anti-Americanism in Pakistan is increasing, even though the U.S. is pouring in money. But it's not affecting the majority of the people in Pakistan."

Anti-American sentiment is not a recent phenomenon in Pakistan. Mr. Musharraf says there is smoldering resentment about how the U.S. used Pakistan to help oust the Soviet Union's forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s and then spurned Pakistan. The United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program and canceled the sale of F-16 warplanes. "Yes, we were ditched at that time. And I said that is the feeling of the man in the street, the anti-U.S. feeling in the man in the street is because of that because they held back our F-16s, having taken the money, and a lot of things that followed," says Mr. Musharraf.

U.S. Politics

The return of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan in October was part of a deal brokered by U.S. officials, who hoped Bhutto would be a moderating influence. But Bhutto's increasingly strident criticism of President Musharraf caused the deal to turn sour.

Bhutto's assassination at a rally in December again raised Pakistan as a political issue in the United States as fears were voiced about that country's stability, particularly of the possibility that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal might fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, another presidential candidate, suggested some kind of joint oversight of the weapons. President Musharraf quickly dismissed that idea as political suicide for any Pakistani leader who would agree to it. "I would be foolish as the president of Pakistan, if I accepted any kind of foreign people coming in and intruding into our nuclear [program]. We guard it very jealously. And it is in the mind and heart of every Pakistani, even in the most illiterate man," said Mr. Musharraf.

Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at the RAND Corporation, says the threat to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has been vastly exaggerated. "Recent media hype surrounding the issue of the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, including statements about the possibility of the U.S. having to seize Pakistani nuclear assets, is damaging to the bilateral relationship. The current civil unrest does not directly endanger the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal," says Fair.

Pervez Musharraf has pledged that Pakistan's upcoming elections will be free and fair. But the opposition greets that promise with great skepticism, saying that pre-poll rigging is already underway.

Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says President Musharraf is seeking an outcome that will guarantee his hold on power. He says if the elections are not perceived as truly fair, that will pose a dilemma for U.S. policymakers and politicians about continuing to back Mr. Musharraf. "If it is acceptable to the Pakistani people, we will all be spared a great deal of difficulty in our relations with Pakistan. If this outcome, however, is not acceptable to the Pakistani people, it will put the United States in the very awkward position of having to choose," says Tellis.

Most analysts add that a controversial outcome will virtually ensure that Pakistan's politics will figure as a foreign policy issue in the U.S. elections in November.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.