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Pakistan crisis: 'It ain't easy' for U.S.

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. official: "We are looking at our options, and none of them are good"
  • Washington weighs how to respond to Gen. Pervez Musharraf
  • U.S. officials say any response will boil down to one thing: al Qaeda
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By Elise Labott
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents and producers share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, producer Elise Labott, who covers the State Department, offers insights into U.S. options in dealing with Pakistan.

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Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, explains his actions in a televised address to the nation.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- Gen. Pervez Musharraf's declaration of martial law was a wake-up call for Washington, leaving the future alliance with the Pakistani president in question.

Even before Saturday's crackdown, U.S. State Department officials said they had struggled with what to do if Musharraf went through with his threat. They didn't know then, and they don't know now.

"Frankly, it ain't easy," one official said. "We are looking at our options, and none of them are good."

The United States has pushed for Musharraf to shed his army uniform and hold elections by January. And it repeatedly has told him that his cooperation in the war on terror is not a replacement for democratic reforms. Video Watch why the U.S. is disappointed with Musharraf »

But officials acknowledge any U.S. response will boil down to one thing: al Qaeda.

The United States knows it needs Musharraf to combat al Qaeda in Pakistan. Musharraf knows Washington knows this. It gives him enormous leverage against the United States and a pretty well-calculated gamble that the United States can't respond too harshly.

Washington relies on Musharraf to fight al Qaeda in the northwest province of Waziristan. The United States has been pushing him to clamp down on the movement of weapons and extremists across the border with Afghanistan. But those areas have been returning to Taliban control.

The United States said it will review aid to Pakistan in response to Musharraf's heavy-handed measures over the weekend. But that could hurt the United States more than it would Pakistan. The majority of U.S. aid is in the form of military assistance to fight terrorism, so cutting that assistance would reduce the capacity of the military, rendering it less capable of fighting al Qaeda.

What little funding remains is mostly economic and educational support to moderate Pakistanis with whom the United States is trying to form long-term relationships. It is a part of the U.S. campaign to "win hearts and minds" of average Pakistanis who haven't fallen prey to extremism.

This is why the Bush administration is unlikely to impose sanctions against Pakistan, which would require the United States to suspend its entire aid relationship with the country. Neither side could afford that.

The biggest question for Washington is: How long does the Pakistani leader plan to keep this up, and where do things go from here? The United States needs these answers before making any decisions about next steps.

Knowing its national security interests are tied to Musharraf, the Bush administration doesn't want him taking any more moves that could strengthen the hands of extremists or spark a revolution that would leave him out of a job -- and the United States out of a key ally in the war on terror.

Until now, U.S. officials have not wanted to think about a post-Musharraf Pakistan. Even the U.S. desire to see Musharraf join forces with the popular former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was seen as a way to keep him in office with more legitimacy and a more moderate face as the country moved toward elections.

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But officials are starting to wonder privately if Musharraf can weather the storm. The United States is worried about his long-term viability and the possibility that people will take to the streets to demonstrate -- like they did when he let Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry go in March. The more people who take to the streets, officials said, the stronger the indication Musharraf's days are numbered.

But officials are cognizant that there aren't many alternatives. Musharraf's departure would only create more uncertainty.

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Even if someone such as Bhutto emerges as a new leader, officials wonder if she could represent a more credible force against al Qaeda when she doesn't have the military links that Musharraf has. And officials recognize that anyone who would take over after Musharraf -- even if he or she is more liberally minded -- would feel a certain amount of resentment toward the United States for supporting Musharraf for so long.

Even with all his faults, Washington seems to conclude, for now, that they are better with Musharraf than without him. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Pervez MusharrafPakistanBenazir Bhutto

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