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A New Era for US-Pakistani Relations? 


Pakistan's two main political parties are continuing their efforts to form a coalition government that could bring stability to the country and reduce the powers of President Pervez Musharraf.

Most analysts agree that President Pervez Musharraf's political fate depends on whether the two main parties -- the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -- can form a coalition after winning the majority of seats in last month's parliamentary elections.

Their goal is to form a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly -- perhaps gathering enough votes to impeach President Musharraf. But they would also need majority support in the Senate, where pro-Musharraf lawmakers hold control.

An Evolving Relationship

As Pakistani politicians try to form a new government, the question for many observers in Washington is: What kind of relations will the new government have with the United States, which many people in Pakistan see as a staunch supporter of Mr. Musharraf?

During a recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte testified that the United States supports Pakistan's parliamentary elections that resulted in a decisive defeat for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League -- Q Party.

"Now we will support the Pakistani people as they choose their leaders. Political parties are negotiating the formation of a government and we look forward to working with the leaders who emerge from that process," said Negroponte.

The Committee Chairman, Senator Joseph Biden, said U.S. relations with Pakistan should be based on mutual conviction and not on American convenience. That, he said, is the best way to win the support of the Pakistani people and their leaders.

"We should engage the Pakistanis on issues important to them, rather than just those important to us," said Biden. "For the last three decades that I have been here, the fact is that our relationship with Pakistan has been basically transactional. And that's how the Pakistanis view it and understand it. And I believe that the moderate majority wonders whether we are looking for a long term relationship based on mutual interests."

Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte told the Committee that a democratic Pakistan is vital to U.S. interests and that the two countries share common goals in opposing extremist violence. The focus now, he said, should be on democracy and economic development in Pakistan as well as security cooperation. "We intend to pursue that common interest vigorously with whatever government emerges from the election. Pakistan took another big step toward civilian democracy on February 18, holding successful parliamentary elections under challenging circumstances," testified Negroponte.

The Pakistan Political Scene

The deputy secretary of state did not mention President Musharraf in his testimony. But Committee Chairman Joseph Biden said he believes that Mr. Musharraf will compromise and agree to stay on as President with reduced powers. Earlier, at a news conference, the Senator denied reports that he had called on President Musharraf to step down. "That's not what I said. I said if he is treated [with respect] he would gracefully draw back, meaning exercise the role not of a dictator, not exercise the role of the Prime Minister, but exercise the role of the President [with reduced powers]," said Biden.

If a new coalition government succeeds in impeaching Mr. Musharraf, some experts wonder how the new Army Chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, would react.

Soon after the general was promoted to his post by Mr. Musharraf late last year, he ordered Army officers to sever all contacts with politicians. He has since recalled all the Army officers appointed to civilian posts. And until they return to their military duties, General Kiyani says these officers must not wear their uniforms.

According to South Asia expert Walter Andersen of The Johns Hopkins University, General Kiyani's moves to distance the Army from politics indicates he will accept the will of the people. But he says he does not believe the coalition government would choose to impeach Mr. Musharraf. "I think their hope, which in fact is similar to the U.S. government's hope I think, that Musharraf and the government are able to work together in some way and make compromises," says Andersen.

During last month's elections, Pakistanis also voted the Islamic-based political parties out of power in the Northwest Frontier Province, their traditional stronghold bordering Afghanistan. And in the National Assembly, these religious parties won only six seats, compared to 63 in the last parliamentary elections.

Political scientist Akbar Ahmed of American University here in Washington calls it a dramatic defeat. "The assumption was that when the people of Pakistan will vote, they will invariably vote for the religious parties and somehow there will be a swing toward violence and toward extremism and fanaticism. What the people of Pakistan have shown is that they want democracy," says Ahmed.

An Evolving U.S. Role

The Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, says because the Pakistani people have rejected both the military and Islamic clerics at the ballot box, Washington should adjust its policy toward Pakistan. "This is an opportune moment and the moment of transition for Pakistan to move from the policy based on a personality to a policy based on a nation," said Biden.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte agrees. He says the United States is ready to work with all leaders, saying that Washington should help the people of Pakistan seize the opportunities that their elections have brought. "We are fully prepared to work closely and intensively with all of Pakistan's leaders to create a strong civilian democracy to continue to aggressively prosecute the war on terror," said Negroponte.

According to Negroponte, as far as terrorism is concerned, the situation in Pakistan is no less crucial than it is in neighboring Afghanistan. "In some sense, these two countries are the flip side of the same coin as far as the problems we are trying to address," said Negroponte. "So we are never going to be able to succeed in one of those countries unless we succeed in the other."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden says U.S. policy toward Pakistan should be two-pronged. It should increase economic assistance for people of the tribal areas and ask for more accountability on Pakistan's part for the military aid being given to fight terrorism.

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

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