WASHINGTON, Aug 17: The United States made it known on Sunday that it was not considering any proposal to grant political asylum to President Pervez Musharraf.

The announcement came from a person no less than the secretary of state who has the final say in such matters.

“That’s not an issue on the table,” said Condoleezza Rice when asked if the Bush administration was considering any proposal to grant political asylum to the embattled Pakistani leader.

“And I just want to keep our focus on what we must do with the democratic government of Pakistan,” she told Fox News on Sunday.

Asked if it would be in the best interest of Pakistan to have Gen (retd) Musharraf resign, Ms Rice said: “This is a matter for the Pakistanis to resolve.”

Her statement makes it obvious that the United States is no longer interested in a person who only recently was called an “indispensable ally” in the war on terror. The question of seeking a ‘safe haven’ for Mr Musharraf was raised by the US media after they concluded, almost unanimously, that his days were numbered and that his departure was only a matter of days, not weeks.

While discussing Mr Musharraf’s future, a leading American scholar of South Asian affairs noted that the Pakistani leader had “one redeeming feature.”

Unlike previous US-backed strongmen, such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or the Shah of Iran, he was not a rich man, said Michael Krepon, a founding president of Washington’s Stimson Institute.

“Musharraf doesn’t have an estate in Hawaii or a mansion in Los Angeles. This complicates any potential exile,” he added. But even this “redeeming feature” does not endear Mr Musharraf to Washington where he is no longer seen as an “indispensable ally”, as Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called him on Nov 7.

He is now seen as a “serious liability,” as a Western think-tank --- International Crisis Group --- pointed out recently.

The United States has been quietly distancing itself from President Musharraf since Aug 7, when the ruling coalition in Islamabad announced its decision to impeach him.

But the United States had decided to ally itself with democratic forces in Pakistan long before the impeachment move was launched. On Nov 7, four days after Mr Musharraf imposed a state of emergency, President George Bush telephoned him and told him to hold parliamentary elections and relinquish his post as head army.

“You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time,” Mr Bush said, describing his conversation with Mr Musharraf to the reporters. “I had a very frank discussion with him.”

Ms Rice later told reporters that the US remained “constantly engaged” with President Musharraf to ensure that the elections were held on time and they were fair and free.

She referred to this again on Sunday, saying: “We have been supportive of democratic elections that took place in Pakistan. In fact, advocated for them.”

She said the United States had showed its support for the new government, citing President Bush’s recent meeting with Pakistani Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Ms Rice said “President Musharraf has been a good ally” but that Washington had disagreed with his decision to declare a state of emergency.

Reports published in the US media on Sunday noted that the US had played a key role in arranging a power-sharing deal between Mr Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. After her assassination, the Americans ensured that her successor, Asif Zardari, carried forward the deal.

President Bush, however, continued to support Mr Musharraf until June when he telephoned him and urged him to stay in the presidency.

But the US attitude changed after the impeachment move. A report published by several US media outlets on Sunday claimed that this week Mr Musharraf tried to call Mr Bush at least twice but Mr Bush did not take the calls.

The Washington Post reported on Friday that Mr Bush’s advisers had urged him not take any call from Mr Musharraf as it would send a wrong signal to Pakistan.

Editorial comments in various US newspapers noted that Mr Bush had no option but to “cut lose his old ally, given Mr Musharraf’s increasing unpopularity”.

The US media claimed that Mr Bush did so reluctantly because he liked the Pakistani leader.The reports said that even after the new government took charge in Islamabad, Mr Bush tried to organise a power-sharing arrangement leaving Mr Musharraf in the presidency, albeit with reduced powers.

Mr Zardari, according to these reports, was willing to accept such an arrangement but Nawaz Sharif was adamant to force Mr Musharraf to resign or face impeachment.

The reports claimed that last week Mr Musharraf asked army chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani to back him but the general said that the army would stay out of politics.

Such developments convinced the Bush administration that it is no longer possible to save Mr Musharraf, so it’s now focussing on securing guarantees from the ruling coalition that Mr Musharraf would not be criminally prosecuted after he leaves office.

Mr Zardari, according to these reports, has been willing to make such a deal. Mr Sharif, however, has been demanding that Mr Musharraf should be impeached and sent to prison.

Some reports, however, said that Mr Sharif had withdrawn his earlier position and “now appears willing to consider” the US proposal.



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