Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


U.S. Irked By Its Envoy To U.N.


In public, the Bush administration is trying to stay above the fray of Pakistani politics. Now that Pervez Musharraf has stepped down as president in Pakistan, the administration has claimed neutrality in the contest to replace him. But it turns out appearances are not reality.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been in close contact with one presidential hopeful in Pakistan as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.


MICHELE KELEMEN: U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was planning to meet next week with Asif Ali Zardari - the leader of the Pakistan People's Party and the widower of Benazir Bhutto. A spokesman at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said Khalilzad called off the meeting after consulting with senior State Department officials.

One official at the department, who asked not to be named, said that a lot of folks were frustrated by Khalilzad's long history of unauthorized communications with Pakistani figures.

But while officials complain privately about this, State Department spokesman Robert Wood tried to downplay the whole affair today.

Mr. ROBERT WOOD (Spokesman, U.S. Department of State): Ambassador Khalilzad has many contacts in the South Asia region and, you know, in the Middle East as well. And he talks to various leaders. The secretary and the president respect his counsel. And these are not unusual conversations to have with other leaders. So I wouldn't make more of it than it is.

KELEMEN: The New York Times, which first reported the story, said that Khalilzad spoke by phone with Mr. Zardari several times a week.


Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher sent an angry e-mail to Khalilzad, asking him what sort of advise and help he's providing to Zardari.

Spokesman Robert Wood brushed off questions about whether Khalilzad would be disciplined. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice trusts him.

Mr. WOOD: The secretary has confidence in Ambassador Khalilzad, no question.

KELEMEN: But this isn't the first time Khalilzad has been chided for what looks to be diplomatic freelancing. Earlier this year, he appeared on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next to Iran's foreign minister. State Department officials say he wasn't given permission for that. There are also persistent rumors that the Afghan-born Khalilzad might seek to run for president of Afghanistan, though he's denied that. His contacts with the Pakistani presidential hopeful comment a delicate moment. The Bush administration has faced a lot of criticism for personalizing its relations with Pakistan and backing too heavily and for too long former president Pervez Musharraf.

Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the U.S. needs to stick to its words that elections in Pakistan are a matter for the Pakistani people.

Ms. TERESITA SCHAFFER (Director of the South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The statement that these are matters for Pakistanis to decide is both technically true and was policy, and we ought to try to make it look as if we're doing that and actually make that a reality, too.

KELEMEN: She says there's always a danger that if you get too close to one official, he will alienate others. And Pakistan, Schaffer says, will have multiple centers of power for the foreseeable future.

Ms. SCHAFFER: Even if Mr. Zardari succeeds in becoming president, which I consider quite likely, there will be at least one of the center's power, namely the army, and there will be a third constituency that the United States needs to pay attention to, and that is the principal opposition party, who under that (unintelligible), would be led by Nawaz Sharif. People in power do change. And you need to be able to work with all of them.

KELEMEN: A state Department official, who asked not be named, says Khalilzad's conversations with Zardari made it look as if the U.S. was advocating for one player again, just as it tries to beat back the presumption that the U.S. is always looking for one strong figure to work with in Pakistan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.