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Pakistan Election Outcome Complicates Relationship with US

The stinging rebuke Pakistani voters delivered to President Pervez Musharraf has reverberated in the corridors of power in Washington. Since 1999, the United States only had to deal with one single figure in Islamabad, especially on United States' key concern in Pakistan: counterterrorism. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the U.S. must now navigate a considerably more complex political landscape.

On several occasions, U.S. officials have referred to President Pervez Musharraf as an "indispensable ally" in the war on terror. But that ally's party suffered a sharp defeat in the parliamentary elections, leading some analysts to say that the outcome was a defeat for the United States as well.

Pre-election polls showed that only nine percent of voters surveyed supported Pakistan's cooperation with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

But former State Department officer Daniel Markey, now a South Asia specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was not the overriding concern of Pakistani voters.

"A lot of Pakistanis voted for reasons that have nothing to do with Musharraf's relationship to the United States," he said. "So that wasn't in the minds of a lot Pakistanis when they cast their ballots, I'm sure. So that means there is still an opportunity for the United States to work with whoever emerges in power."

U.S. officials have been pressuring Mr. Musharraf to take more aggressive action against Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who use Pakistan's rugged tribal areas as a safe haven from which to attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Musharraf denounced Islamic extremists, but tried to cut peace deals with pro-Taliban local tribal leaders.

Asif Zardari, head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the biggest vote-getter in the election, has said he wants to see less military action and more dialogue with homegrown radical Islamists in the tribal areas.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth says that whatever coalition government that emerges from political negotiations will probably try a different approach to extremism and terrorism.

"Right now the Pakistani people do see this as an extension, if you will, of 'Busharraf' - Bush and Musharraf - and that the war on terrorism is something that they cut a deal to deal with and that it has not been as part of a Pakistan campaign and fighting for the nation of Pakistan as much as it has been doing favors for the U.S. This is fundamentally wrong way to look at it," he explained.

Like many other analysts, Inderfurth says the Pakistani people have to be convinced that the anti-terrorism fight is in their interests as well. But that will be a tough sale to make.

Former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin points out that U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in counterterrorism has not gone down well in some sectors of the army as well.

"Even some within the army were unhappy that they were being asked to fire against their own citizens and co-religionists at the behest of a foreign power," she noted.

Abu Laith al-Libi, described by officials as a senior al-Qaida commander, was killed recently in the tribal areas. No officials will publicly say how he died, but published reports say he was killed in a missile strike by a U.S. Predator drone. The Washington Post has reported the Pakistan government was not informed of or consulted about the operation beforehand.

Shuja Nawaz, a military analyst and author of a book on the Pakistan army, says that while he does not know if that account is true, any U.S. unilateral action is bound to provoke anti-American sentiment inside the government.

"I think that in general there always is a little bit of resentment when the U.S. acts unilaterally, or maybe more than a little bit of resentment, because this is supposed to be a partnership, and there are mechanisms in place - and I don't know why they are not used or why they don't work - to inform each other when something is going down, even if it is just minutes before the action is due to be taken," he explained.

The U.S. has given Pakistan roughly $1 billion a year since 2002 to pay for its counterterrorism efforts.