Pakistan was plunged into turmoil yesterday after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sacked Army chief General Pervez Musharraf, who hours later announced the military takeover of Sharif's government. RFE/RL's State Department correspondent Lisa McAdams reports the events sparked immediate concern in Washington, particularly with regard to Pakistan's newly developed nuclear capability.
Washington, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin says the U.S. regrets that political events in Pakistan have led to what he called a setback for democracy and the country's constitution.
The first official U.S. reaction to last night's military coup in Pakistan came in a written statement released early today at the State Department. In the statement, Rubin said the United States listened closely to what Pakistani army chief General Pervez Musharraf had to say about the rationale for why the armed forces moved in to -- in the general's words -- "re-establish order" in Pakistan. Musharraf explained the coup in a nationwide television address today. Musharraf said the military ousted Sharif to end "uncertainty and turmoil" in Pakistan.
Rubin said the U.S. also noted Musharraf's promise to make a full policy statement in due course. He said the U.S. hopes that in upcoming policy statements, Musharraf sets forth clear plans for the restoration of civilian government in Pakistan. Rubin also spoke about the events in Pakistan to reporters late yesterday in Washington:
"If there has been a coup, we would seek the earliest possible restoration of democracy in Pakistan, and clearly we would not be in a position to carry on business as usual with Pakistani authorities, as our laws indicate."
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam, is expected to travel to Pakistan as early as today. A senior U.S. State Department official -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- said Milam, who is currently on business in the western U.S. state of California, could be carrying with him a message from the U.S. government. The official did not elaborate.
The U.S. State Department is advising the 4,200 known American citizens in Pakistan to exercise caution and to limit their outside movements. But the U.S. embassy is expected to remain open for business today.
The latest reports indicate the Pakistani army is in control of key government installations in Pakistan and that several government ministers -- including Sharif -- are under house arrest.
Speculation of a possible coup had been rife since Sharif promised U.S. President Bill Clinton on July 4 to withdraw Pakistani-backed militants from Kargil in the disputed region of Kashmir.
The incursion earlier this year across the Line of Control separating Pakistani- and Indian-claimed territory sparked fierce fighting and raised fears of a full-scale war between two countries, which both have nuclear capabilities.
State Department spokesman James Rubin was asked by reporters to address the question of whether the events in Pakistan represent a threat to the control of the country's nuclear capability. Rubin said:
"With respect to control of the nuclear capability Pakistan may have, I don't think there is a fear right this moment that that is jeopardized by recent developments. That doesn't mean that couldn't change, and I wouldn't want to make any elaborate statement for all time on that. But right now, this is a political crisis, not anything more than that."
The U.S. Defense Department also sought to downplay concern about the status of Pakistan's nuclear capability. Spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters that it is his understanding that the Pakistani army was already in control of the country's nuclear program and responsible for the security of its nuclear weapons.
John Dori is a South Asian specialist for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Dori spoke to RFE/RL about the Pakistan crisis:
"Pakistan is in possession of nuclear weapons, and the Indian military is on high alert, so we need the United States to monitor that situation very closely to try to prevent things from spinning out of control to the best of our ability, although unfortunately our influence seems to be somewhat limited at this point."
Dori declined further comment, as did the White House, noting the unfolding nature of events in Pakistan. But other U.S. officials weighed in on the issue, including the chairman of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee. Congressman Benjamin Gilman said Congress should n-o-t give U.S. President Bill Clinton the authority to resume military assistance to Pakistan, particularly in light of yesterday's actions.
Gilman released a statement saying that as early as today, the lower house may consider the conference report on the fiscal year 2000 Department of Defense appropriations bill. The conference report contains language that provides broad authority to the president to waive sanctions imposed against India and Pakistan for nuclear tests conducted by both nations last year.
Gilman said the situation clearly indicates that Pakistan is n-o-t in a position to resume a full and complete military relationship with the United States. He also expressed concern that the actions by Pakistan's military -- in addition to the recent Pakistan-backed militant incursion into India -- could lead to further instability in South Asia.
It is that possibility -- perhaps beyond all others -- that has officials in Washington and abroad most concerned.
(RFE/RL's Andrew Tully also contributed to this report.)