In addition to the three official candidates– George Bush, John Kerry and Ralph Nader– two others are likely to influence the outcome of the US presidential elections on November 2: Usama bin Laden and Pakistani president general Pervez Musharraf. Usama is the main character in the forthcoming contest, although he is not talked about much in the Western media these days. There is intense guesswork about where he might be; theories abound. He is in the custody of the Pakistanis and will be produced just in time to swing the election in Bush’s favour, according to one theory; he has been surrounded and will be caught before then, according Joseph Cofer Black, the US state department coordinator for counter-terrorism. Black said this to Pakistan’s Geo television network after a meeting of the Pakistan-US Joint Working Group on Counter-terrorism and Law-Enforcement in Islamabad (September 2-3). Black told the network that Usama’s time was running out, describing him as “probably the most hunted man in the planet now.”

Despite the recent polls showing Bush ahead of Kerry, he is vulnerable on a number of fronts, especially Iraq, where mounting casualties could lead to a meltdown of support. In September there was a surge of resistance activity, causing the highest number of American casualties in one month, and a very high civilian death-rate, although there is little interest in the West in their numbers. Given the fickleness of the American electorate, Bush could stumble in the televised debates and end up as a one-term president, as did his father. So he is taking no chances; he is banking on Musharraf to produce Usama. The Pakistani dictator is anxious to please his master, whose good will he thinks will ensure his political survival at home.

During his visit to the US in late September to attend the UN general assembly session, Musharraf met Bush twice. On the first occasion, he was asked to see Bush with president Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. That Musharraf should be reduced to the level of a puppet like Karzai was clearly a snub, although the Pakistanis have been claiming that as a result of his ‘special relationship” the general was received twice by the US president. Another puppet, Iyad Allawi, a former Ba’athist-criminal-turned-CIA-agent, was given a much warmer reception and even allowed to address the US congress. Bush clearly felt he could get much greater political mileage out of Allawi’s appearance, to lull the American public about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. In the league of puppets, Musharraf is much lower down the ratings.

In the joint Karzai-Musharraf meeting, Bush appointed the Pakistani dictator a polling-agent for Karzai, to ensure that the Afghan refugees” vote will be marshalled for him; in the second meeting, Bush promised a large aid-package in return for Usama’s head. In order to appease the US, Pakistan’s military has been involved in a brutal war against its own people in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) since March; this war has now been extended to Balochistan as well. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in aerial bombardments and tens of thousands of tribespeople displaced, in what is regarded by most observers as a repeat of the bloody campaign in erstwhile East Pakistan that resulted in India’s military invasion and the creation of Bangladesh.

For fighting and killing his own people, Musharraf is now America’s ‘strong ally in the fight against terrorism.” These accolades, however, are likely to last only until the US elections; after that Bush may have little use for Musharraf. Rather naively, Musharraf endorsed Bush during a television interview, when asked by Paula Zahn of CNN whom he preferred as US president. Musharraf said that he did not know Kerry– he ought to, just in case the Democrat wins– but then went on to praise Bush as honest and sincere. The cowboy from Texas would be surprised to learn that he has such qualities.

For his close alliance with the US, Musharraf is now hated in Pakistan. He cannot venture out without massive security; he has to use several decoys to avoid being ambushed (he has survived two assassination attempts already); most meetings and gatherings are now held in the huge presidential compound. Musharraf is effectively a prisoner in his house, thanks to his role as America’s agent. In this he shares the fate of Karzai and Allawi, who also live in American-protected bunkers.

According to informed sources in Pakistan, there is intense debate in the military’s higher echelons about how to respond to Bush’s demand for Usama. Regardless of whether or not he is in Pakistani custody, or surrounded somewhere in the tribal belt, some generals” opinion is that if Usama were to be handed over to the US, Washington would have no further use for Pakistan. Musharraf would be dropped immediately, and the US congress would impose economic sanctions against Pakistan for Dr Qadeer Khan’s self-confessed role in Pakistan’s nuclear programme. It would be back to the days of 1989, when the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan: Pakistan was abandoned and stiff sanctions were imposed under what came to be called the Pressler amendment. This was a Pakistan-specific law that was passed to undermine Islamabad’s nuclear efforts. Neither the US nor the zionists want any Muslim country to have any nuclear capability. Despite the current silence on the issue, it would be unwise to assume that the Americans or the zionists will never resurrect the Pressler amendment.

Another opinion in Pakistan is that Western governments in general, and the US in particular, have embarked on a war against Islam, in which Muslim activists are the main target: if Pakistan continues to support the US’s war, its usefulness to Washington will not diminish. As a thoroughly secular figure, Musharraf himself subscribes to this view. He believes that he can remain in the US’s good books– in Pakistani politics this matters most– by continuing his campaign against Islamic activists. The various “Islamic” political parties are not targeted because they are seen as Musharraf’s allies; this should dispel any doubts about their true role in Pakistani politics. In fact, many sincere individuals in these parties have become thoroughly disillusioned with the behaviour of their party leaders, whom they regard as politicians first and Muslims later.

It appears that the consensus in the military is to play it safe; Usama is too important for their own survival. As long as Usama is at large, Musharraf can continue to keep the US interested in having him in power, and Pakistan’s army supplied with weapons. Considerations of self-interest seem to suggest that the Pakistani military is likely to make much noise about “high-value targets” just before the US elections, to affect its outcome in Bush’s favour; a few wanted men may be produced, as was Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, accused of masterminding the bombings in August 1998 of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He was arrested last July in Gujrat, a textile city in Punjab province; his arrest made headlines across the US shortly after the Democratic Party convention, and was obviously timed to divert attention from the Democrats” media blitz. A few commentators (e.g. Christopher Dickey of Newsweek) raised eyebrows over the time and place of Khalfan’s arrest in the heart of Punjab province; it even led to an “orange alert” in the US; more such theatrics can be expected before November.

Musharraf probably savours his status as Bush’s “trusted friend”, but he should not forget that “the higher the monkey climbs, the harder it falls”.