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Some in U.S. Intelligence See Musharraf on His Way Out

Musharraf, whose alliance with the U.S. on counterterrorism has been the subject of fierce controversy within Pakistan, has made error after error since March, when he ousted a leading critic, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a move of dubious legality. Chaudhry's Supreme Court was set to hear a case on the constitutionality of Musharraf retaining the post of Army Chief of Staff while holding the presidency, and Musharraf cited unspecified allegations of corruption in removing him. Since then, Pakistan has been rocked by popular protest, uniting many of Musharraf's enemies. On May 12, over 40 people were killed when members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which supports Musharraf, attacked a pro-Chaudhry demonstration in Karachi, an incident that has become a national scandal.

Making matters worse, just days later, Musharraf was confronted with another crisis: the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, located in the heart of the capitol city of Islamabad, denounced Pakistan's female tourism minister and then captured the policemen who came to arrest the mosque's leaders. On May 22, Musharraf defused the crisis without invading the mosque -- defying the wishes of many in his security apparatus -- but the militants were allowed to keep their weapons. The incident was a reminder that Pakistani jihadists have gained strength since September 2006, when Musharraf agreed to a truce with Islamist militants in the lawless Waziristan province, where Osama bin Laden and his coterie are believed to be hiding.

Within three months, Musharraf has grown steadily weaker in the eyes of the security services, the Islamists, and the general public, compounding the doubts that some in the U.S. have over his commitment to taking on al-Qaeda. The mistakes expose a regime "imploding" under the weight of its contradictions, according to Grere, and unable to mollify the multifaceted discontent that has taken root since Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup.

Neither Richer nor Grare believes that there's an obvious candidate to succeed Musharraf, the ex-Pakistani official cited two prominent generals who could emerge as successors if the Army opts to retain formal rule, or alternatively, serve as crucial behind-the-scenes power brokers. The two are Ehsan Saleem Hayat, the army's vice chief of staff, and Ehsan ul-Haq, the chairman of the joint chiefs and a former head of Pakistan's powerful intelligence apparatus, known as the ISI. According to the ex-Pakistani official, both men were recently in Washington, sounding out senior officials: "They didn't come to Washington for a Burger King meal." A State Department official confirms that ul-Haq met in May with Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, but could not say the same for Hayat.

The former Pakistani official says that the message that the possible successors are trying to send to the U.S. is that "continuity in policy can be ensured without the continuity of an individual, while at the same time, a democratic process can proceed." In other words, the U.S. can wean itself off of Musharraf without fear that the U.S.-Pakistani alliance is at risk, and will likely have some kind of election to point to that blesses the result. Not many see the Islamists as able to take control. "One common factor in places where Islamists rise to power is the economy tanking," observes Richer. "But in Pakistan investment is taking off. It doesn't have many of the factors that drive religious elements taking power."

This week, Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, will visit Pakistan as part of region-wide trip. A State Department official denies that Boucher would send any particular message to Musharraf, and says he's there to "follow up on (previous) discussions," especially about counterterrorism cooperation.