Musharraf's crackdown could fuel insurgency in Pakistan

WASHINGTON — President Pervez Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule in Pakistan, which he said is intended to curb Islamic extremism, could actually aid the growing insurgency by militants allied with al Qaida and the Taliban, U.S. officials and experts warned Monday.

Musharraf's brutal suppression and arrests Monday of thousands of opposition protesters also could endanger U.S. congressional approval of a $750 million plan to help curb the insurgency, they said.

Senior U.S. officials indicated that security aid will continue to flow to Pakistan despite the crackdown, underscoring the Bush administration's fears over the potentially serious consequences of Musharraf's moves for the U.S. war on terror.

"We are reviewing all of our assistance programs (to Pakistan), although we are mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counterterrorism efforts," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during a news conference in Beijing.

Musharraf, who is also the army chief of staff, took power in a 1999 coup and became a key ally in fighting terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, sending his army into the tribal areas and arresting several senior al Qaida operatives.

In imposing the state of emergency on Saturday, Musharraf said he intended to crush Islamic militants, who have extended their deadly assaults beyond the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and staged a growing number of suicide bombings in urban centers.

But the insurgency isn't the only crisis Musharraf faces. The others are a loss of political support for his grip on power and court challenges to the legality of his dual role as president and chief of staff. His declaration of emergency rule came ahead of a Pakistan Supreme Court ruling that might have de-legitimized his recent re-election as president.

Musharraf's "focus will be on stabilizing his power base, which means dealing with dissidents, opposition parties and law and order in general," said Seth Jones, an expert on Pakistan with the RAND Corp., a think tank that advises the U.S. government.

All of that will leave Musharraf little energy or time to conduct counterinsurgency operations against the extremists, who have imposed harsh Islamic rule in parts of the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, bordering Afghanistan. As a result, militants could have more freedom to carry out their operations and recruit.

"It's going to be difficult to see how Musharraf can take new initiatives up in the tribal areas," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Musharraf also will have to keep close tabs on the army for signs of a mutiny.

The officer corps is angered by hundreds of casualties that the army has sustained in operations against the militants launched under pressure from the United States. It's also upset over the tarnishing of the military's image caused by Musharraf's rule, experts said.

Musharraf has kept the army in its barracks since the crackdown, relying mostly on police and paramilitary units, because many officers and troops would be unwilling to use force against fellow Pakistanis, said several U.S. officials and experts.

The Bush administration has been pressing Musharraf to step up military operations in the FATA, since U.S. intelligence agencies reported earlier this year that a rejuvenated al Qaida has established a sanctuary, complete with training bases, in the region.

The State Department official said that there are concerns that the Democratic-controlled Congress could react to Musharraf's crackdown by withholding approval of a new $750 million plan designed to help Pakistan contain the insurgency.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees aid to Pakistan, appeared to justify those concerns.

"U.S. aid to the Musharraf government should stop until constitutional order, civil liberties and judicial independence are restored, until political prisoners are released, and until free and fair elections are allowed," he said.

The money that would be dispersed under the plan would be used to provide new equipment and training for Pakistani security forces and to create jobs in the destitute tribal region through the construction of roads, hospitals and schools.