US urged to change tack in Pak

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Washington Oct 11: The United States needs to reach out to Pakistan's civilian leaders and promote fair elections in that key US ally to build support for fighting terrorism, experts told a congressional hearing.

They told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee yesterday that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the US-backed army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup, faced rising Islamic militancy in tribal regions bordering Afghanistan while his power had waned.

Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Musharraf's ''power and ability to control things in Pakistan have significantly diminished in the past six months'' and Washington was tainted by association with the military strongman.

''We have set ourselves up to be blamed for all the shortcomings of Pakistan's government -- and have set the stage for a successor government to use anti-Americanism as a rallying cry,'' the retired US diplomat told the panel.

Washington must firmly support civilian rule and free elections and ''work with the army on military issues, including helping it address its shortcomings in counterinsurgency, but do not build up its political role,'' she said.

Musharraf won re-election last week in a result whose legality is being weighed by Pakistan's top court this week. A general election is due in early January.

Marvin Weinbaum of the West Asia Institute told the committee that actions by both Musharraf and the United States had alienated Pakistanis from their government and sapped whatever support there was for fighting Islamic militants.

''Because Washington conflates most conflicts across the West Asia and Afghanistan as part of the 'global war on terrorism,' Pakistanis see it as a US-led war against Islam, and thus not their war,'' he said.

''Actions taken by Musharraf to satisfy his external critics have not only fallen short but have had the double-barreled effect of intensifying opposition to the government in the tribal areas and further eroding Musharraf's political support throughout the country,'' Weinbaum said.

He said US and NATO forces in Afghanistan might have to cope with Pakistan's shortcomings in stopping Taliban fighters by putting ''substantially larger force levels on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan.'' Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation think tank said Washington needed to provide ''unequivocal support'' for a democratic transition, but also aid economic development in poor tribal areas where Islamic militancy thrives.

But Curtis also warned that pending US legislation putting conditions on military aid to Pakistan risked a repeat of a 1990 aid cut-off that embittered Islamabad, which still ''views the US as a fickle partner that could exit the region at any time.''


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