U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told Congress Wednesday the Bush administration strongly opposes Pakistani President Musharaff's declaration of emergency rule, but he resisted calls for sharp cuts in U.S. aid to that country. The second-ranking State Department official said General Musharraf has been an "indispensable" ally of the United States against terrorism. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The more than two-hour hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee featured bipartisan criticism of President Musharraf, but a vigorous defense of U.S. engagement with the Islamabad government by Negroponte, who said continued partnership with Pakistan and its people "is the only option."
The Bush administration, in addition to demanding a rollback of the Musharraf emergency decree and free elections in January, has begun a review of U.S. aid programs for Pakistan at least in part because of Congressional pressure.
However in his testimony, Negroponte said U.S. assistance - totaling nearly $10 billion since 2001 - has been mainly to help Pakistan combat regional extremism and promote moderation, and he said sweeping cuts would be counter to the interests of both countries:
"Cutting these programs would send a negative signal to the people of Pakistan," said John Negroponte. "The safety our citizens and the stability of the region depend on nurturing the ties that we have begun to form. Long-term partnership with the Pakistani people is the only option for the United States."
A senior Democrat on the committee, Gary Ackerman of New York, lashed out at the Pakistani leader - depicting him as a "thug" whose resort to emergency rule was more about preserving his own hold on power than fighting extremism.
Ackerman said General Musharraf is arresting those politicians who could govern the country effectively, and said last weekend's crackdown requires a decisive U.S. response.
"This time there should be consequences," said Gary Ackerman. "We should stop delivery of any further F-16's to Pakistan and cut off all further other U.S. assistance until the state of emergency is lifted, the constitution is restored, the fired Supreme Court Justices are reinstated, opposition politicians and civil society activists are released, independent media is allowed to reopen, a caretaker government is appointed to hold free and fair parliamentary elections and General Musharraf steps down as promised as chief of the Army staff."
Negroponte, the former chief of U.S. national intelligence, defended general Musharraf's conduct of anti-terrorism operations since 2001.
But he said the current turmoil, if prolonged, could become a distraction that undercuts the Pakistani military's security mission, and said the United States may at some point have to consider punitive action.
"I think that the longer this situation goes on, in its present form, the more difficult it is going to become," he said. "And that is why we believe it is so important that this state of emergency end, absolutely as soon as possible, so as to not confront us with the kinds of choices that you were describing."
Congressman Ackerman's personal criticism of General Musharraf was echoed by California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, normally a strong supporter of the Bush administration.
Rohrabacher said the Pakistani leader has been an enemy of moderates and a friend to Islamic radicals, and that it is time for the United States to, as he put it, "drop" General Musharraf.
"Who cares if General Musharraf takes off his uniform? It's time for him to go," said Dana Rohrabacher. "I don't care if he is in his uniform or out of his uniform. It's time for him to go. He's been a political juggler and he has failed at that. He has been a political juggler instead of a leader. He's been a chameleon instead of a bold opponent to radical Islam or even a champion of moderation in his own country."
Responding, Deputy Secretary Negroponte said it is not up to the United States to "drop" General Musharraf or any other political figure. He said U.S. support has been for the government and people of Pakistan, and that Pakistanis alone will determine that country's political future.