WASHINGTON -- In light of the state of emergency declared by Pakistan's powerful but embattled president and army chief of staff, the Bush administration says it is "reviewing" the billions of dollars in aid provided to that nuclear power in the heart of a terrorist-threatened region.
But despite an indefinite delay of promised elections by President Pervez Musharraf, who first seized power with a military coup in 1999, critics say the Bush administration's hands might well be tied for lack of another realistic option in Pakistan.
Hundreds of Musharraf's opponents, including judges, human-rights activists and rival politicians, were rounded up yesterday by Pakistani police, signaling the start of what could be a long and concerted crackdown against those who have challenged Musharraf's authority in past months. The government also said yesterday that parliamentary elections could be delayed up to a year.
Much of the alliance that President Bush has forged with Musharraf - including delivery of $11 billion in U.S. aid to Islamabad since 2001 - has centered on a mutual interest in hunting down terrorists, as well as keeping Pakistan's own nuclear arsenal out of the hands of Islamic extremists.
Yet now, experts say Musharraf's ability to pursue any offensive against terrorists will be limited. And with Musharraf locking down his capital, firing the chief justice and placing supreme court justices under house arrest, the Bush administration comes face to face with the conflict between its own policy of promoting democracy in troubled regions of the world and its reliance on Musharraf to maintain control of a potentially volatile nation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted yesterday that the U.S. has not "put all its chips" on Musharraf. She announced that the United States will be reviewing, but not necessarily suspending the aid it provides to Pakistan because of the state of emergency declared Saturday night.
Yet critics of the administration's foreign policy say Bush's partnership with Musharraf is the sole element of U.S. policy toward Pakistan.
"This administration has a Musharraf policy, not a Pakistani policy," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday. "It's tied to Musharraf, and its hands are pretty well tied now. ... God only knows what happens then. This is a real mess."
Biden, appearing on CBS' Face the Nation, worried that if radicals and Islamists control the country, "they are going to marry ... the weapons and the ability to deliver them."
Rice said yesterday that "We've [made] very clear our expectations that this state of emergency needs to be abandoned and return to a constitutional process as quickly as possible.
"... we do have concerns - continuing counterterrorism concerns - and we have to be able to protect America and protect American citizens by continuing to fight against terrorists," she said. "And we have a significant counterterrorism effort in Pakistan and so we have to review this whole situation."
Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to Pakistani prime ministers and now professor at Boston University, says the United States wants Pakistan to remain stable - and if Musharraf can keep it that way, the U.S. will be more accepting.
"Withdrawing aid or imposing sanctions would reduce the little effectiveness Musharraf has left in fighting the terrorists," he said.
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.