Washington brass plays down potential for Bhutto-Musharraf rift following Karachi blasts

November 14th, 2007 - 2:34 am ICT by admin  
According to the New York Times, the officials publicly played down the potential for a deepening rift between Musharraf and Bhutto in the wake of Thursday’s suicide bomb blasts, pointing out that Bhutto herself had praised the rescue efforts of Pakistan’s security forces and that Musharraf had called her to make sure she was safe.

On Friday, American officials acknowledged that there was no clear basis for confidence that the two leaders could work cooperatively. Now that Bhutto has returned to Pakistan, they acknowledged that their control over events was limited.

“There’s really not much left to say or do at this point,” one Bush administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bhutto, according to the official, used her time in exile to nurture influential connections within Washington’s corridors of power. Two years ago, she could not even get the State Department’s top official for South Asia to show up at a dinner party in her honour. A desk officer in charge of Pakistan was sent instead.

But in recent months that began to change. The American courtship of Bhutto included a private dinner and a jet ride with Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the United Nations, and, over the last month, several telephone calls to Bhutto from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The Bush administration for a long time decided that the only telephone number in Pakistan they were going to call was Musharraf’s,” said Husain Haqqani, a former adviser to Bhutto and a professor of international relations at Boston University. “But Bhutto made it clear to them that her phone number was available to call anytime.”

In turning back to Bhutto, administration officials said they acted with reluctance, after Musharraf’s own political missteps and the mounting opposition to his military government had weakened his grip on power and threatened to plunge Pakistan deeper into turmoil.

The administration concluded over the summer that a power-sharing deal with Bhutto might be the only way that Musharraf could keep from being toppled.

It began quietly nurturing the accord, under which Bhutto’s party did not boycott Musharraf’s election last month, and the president issued a decree granting Bhutto and others amnesty for recent corruption charges, opening the way for her return.

Administration officials say that Rice stepped up her personal involvement last month, when it seemed possible that Sharif, would make his own bid to return to power, and upset the deal.

Still, even now, there is no great love in the Bush administration for Bhutto. While American intelligence officials have been frustrated at times with Musharraf’s record in fighting the Islamic militants in northern Pakistan, they have also found a small level of comfort in dealing with him.

They also worry that Bhutto’s re-entry to Pakistan’s political scene will complicate their lagging efforts to pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents.

State Department bureaucrats also fret that her turbulent past will further inflame an already volatile country. Inside and outside the American bureaucracy, there remains deep scepticism that the arrangement between Bhutto and Musharraf will have long-term success.

“This backroom deal I think is going to explode in our face,” said Bruce Riedel, who advised three presidents on South Asian issues and is now at the Brookings Institution.

Still, there is concern among American officials that, given rising anti-Americanism inside Pakistan, eventually she and Musharraf could compete for public support by showing who is less beholden to the White House.

For Bhutto, years of relentless networking among America’s political, diplomatic and media elite also helped to vault her back into position to lead one of the United States’ most critical allies.

“She is a networker par excellence, and she’s been keeping her contacts,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, the former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who dined across the table from her at a dinner party during her last swing through Washington, in September.

Bhutto was first introduced to America’s political power brokers in 1984, via the dinner party circuit. Peter Galbraith, whose family was friends with the Bhutto family and who at the time was on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, escorted Bhutto around Washington.

When she herself later became the first woman elected prime minister of a Muslim country, hers was the first state dinner given by President George Bush on June 6, 1989.

She also maintained her close ties to Washington during the Clinton administration, both while she was prime minister and afterward, when she was living in exile in London, Dubai and New York after being forced from power, accused of corruption.

In 1998, Ms. Bhutto asked Mark Siegel, a well-connected Democratic Party operative, to set up a meeting for her at the White House with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One close Bhutto friend described that meeting as “intimate and warm,” and as one that had touched, at Ms. Bhutto’s prompting, on Mrs. Clinton’s personal struggles in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Riedel, who attended the meeting, said that most of the meeting was consumed by Bhutto pressing her case on a range of issues, from Pakistani politics and women’s rights to the rise of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

“I think that Benazir did about 99 percent of the talking,” he said. (ANI)

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