WASHINGTON – The imposition of emergency rule on Saturday in nuclear-armed Pakistan underscores how little influence the Bush administration has on events in a country that has become the bulwark in the U.S. fight against terrorism.

U.S. officials moved quickly to denounce the order by Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which suspended the constitution and shut down non-government news media. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. government was “deeply disturbed” by the move, which the White House called “very disappointing.”

Washington’s lack of influence, however, was palpable. On Friday, both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Turkey for talks on Iraq, and Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, had warned Musharraf not to impose emergency rule. But Musharraf didn’t even wait for Fallon, who was in Pakistan, to leave the country before making his declaration.

Foreign policy experts said there were few steps the administration could take to pressure Musharraf to change course.

“I don’t know what the U.S. can do,” said Wendy Chamberlain, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

Musharraf has become a critical ally against al-Qaida despite widespread skepticism that his government is fully committed to the fight against the terrorist group and its Taliban allies. Members of the powerful military intelligence branch, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, are known to have been supporters of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The proclamation of emergency rule is unlikely to help Musharraf fight the extremists, said Stephen P. Cohen, a Pakistan expert at The Brookings Institution. The Pakistani military appears either incompetent to combat extremists or is cooperating with them, he said.

“In the case of al-Qaida, it’s a mystery why they can’t identify the location of Osama bin Laden, if he’s in Pakistan,” Cohen said.

Chamberlain said the firm statements made by the White House and State Department were the right approach, but she cautioned against retaliation by Washington. That, she said, would play into the hands of anti-American parties in Pakistan.

They “are looking for a heavy American hand. We shouldn’t show it,” she said.

In a speech to the nation late Saturday, Musharraf said the declaration was necessary to counter Islamic fundamentalists, who in recent days had launched several suicide bombing attacks that have killed dozens of Pakistanis.

But Musharraf’s action also appeared aimed at preventing any decision by the country’s supreme court to declare his Oct. 6 re-election illegal because he has not left his post as chief of Pakistan’s army.

The court was scheduled to meet on the topic Nov. 12, three days before Musharraf’s current term expires. In the hours after his order, seven of the country’s 17 justices were taken from the court’s headquarters by Pakistani soldiers, according to news reports.

McCormack noted that Musharraf had promised to step down as chief of the army before he took the oath of office for a new term and to hold nationwide elections by Jan. 15.

“We expect him to uphold these commitments and urge him to do so immediately,” McCormack said.

Rice called for “quick return to constitutional law.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., called for the administration to drop its unquestioning support for Musharraf and change the U.S. approach to Pakistan. “We have to build a new relationship with the Pakistani people, with more non-military aid, sustained over a long period of time, so that the moderate majority in Pakistan has a chance to succeed,” Biden said in a statement.

Chamberlain lamented Musharraf’s actions, saying they undercut steps he had taken, until recently, to strengthen the judiciary and allow a freer press.

Pakistan has become the base for a rejuvenated al-Qaida, and the U.S. has staked much of its battle against the terrorist group on Musharraf.

Pakistani forces recently have clashed with Islamic militants in the country’s North-West Frontier Province, a mountainous area of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Militants in Pakistan also set off deadly suicide bomb attacks against military and police installations in major cities. A suicide bomb killed at least seven people on Tuesday about a mile from Musharraf’s office in Rawalpindi.

The instability might have prompted the army to urge Musharraf to declare the state of emergency, but it’s also likely that his political allies also were worried about their own jobs after the return of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month, Cohen, the Brookings expert, said.

Teresita C. Schaffer, director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the United States would likely continue military cooperation with Pakistan because it is a key ally in the war on terrorism, though it might reduce military sales and aid as a way of applying leverage.

Pakistan is a top recipient of U.S. aid. Since 2001, it has received more than $10 billion from Washington, mostly for its military.

Shaffer said she expected emergency rule in Pakistan “is going to last a while.”

“This is a good old-fashioned state of emergency,” she said. “It’s going to be one-man – plus the army – rule.”

“I’m not terribly surprised at the move,” she added. “It seems things were closing in on him from all sides.”

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PERVEZ MUSHARRAF

AP-NY-11-03-07 1904EDT

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