Aug 1, 2007
Pakistan ripe for regime change
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - A civilian president with the power to handle national security and foreign affairs and a prime minister as chief executive is the new Washington and London formula for regime change in Pakistan. This has been agreed to in principle by President General Pervez Musharraf and former premier Benazir Bhutto, Asia Times Online has confirmed. The arrangement for the United States' key ally in the "war on terror" is intended to lead to a jacking up of the fight against terror with zero tolerance. Musharraf and Bhutto met last week in the United Arab Emirates - where Bhutto lives in exile - and agreed on the most important issues for a new political setup. This includes lifting a ban on a person serving a third term as premier (Bhutto has served twice - 1988-90 and 1993-96) and allowing her to return to Pakistan without threat of legal action - she faces corruption charges. After eight years in power since his bloodless military coup in 1999, Musharraf finally appears to have been convinced that the time has come for him to shed his uniform and return the country to a semblance of democratic normalcy. Several recent events have precipitated this. In July, Musharraf ordered troops to storm the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad to root out militants. This set off a fierce reaction in the tribal areas, where thousands of troops have been mobilized, and scores of them have since been killed by Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. On the political front, Musharraf suffered a setback when the Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, whom the general had suspended in March on allegations of abuse of authority. The incident galvanized Musharraf's political opponents, creating a groundswell of support for change. The US seized on this momentum, as it has become increasingly concerned over Pakistan's performance in the "war on terror". Washington needs someone like Musharraf, but with him under fire from militants and jihadis as well as politicians, a compromise with Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party seemed the best alternative. The talks between Musharraf and Bhutto were the result of a prolonged process in which Washington played a pivotal role. Nevertheless, the direct involvement of a British Foreign Office official, who had served in Pakistan, played an important role in resolving some of the terms of the agreement. The deal has been finalized at a critical juncture of the "war on terror" as Pakistan is under immense pressure to carry out a powerful military assault against al-Qaeda and Taliban bases in Pakistani territory. New US legislation aims to tie aid for Pakistan to its performance in fighting terrorism. Pakistan has received more than US$10 billion in US aid since 2001. The administration of President George W Bush has also made it clear that it will take matters into its own hands if necessary and conduct its own raids inside Pakistan to tackle militants. This could happen any time, as Pakistan's peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas have collapsed after the raid on the Lal Masjid and Washington is tired of Islamabad's excuses for not taking action against Taliban and al-Qaeda bases. Washington pointed out these bases a few months ago. Apart from Lal Masjid (now taken care of), they are in North-West Frontier Province, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The Pakistan Army had appeared on the brink of a major offensive against militants, but then came the talks between Musharraf and Bhutto. Pakistani analysts speculate that Musharraf might appoint the present director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant-General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiyani, to replace him as chief of army staff. Musharraf would then become a civilian president. There might be a legal issue here, though. Currently, government servants need a two-year break before they can participate in politics. Another problem is the army itself. A significant section of the military resents Musharraf for siding with the US in the "war on terror", as this meant initially the severing of ties with the Taliban, whom Pakistan nurtured into power in Afghanistan in 1996. Subsequently, the military has been forced to launch highly unpopular offensives in the tribal areas, and has alienated the jihadist groups it had previously courted. The dissatisfied factions have found a voice in such people as the anti-American Senator Syed Mushahid Hussain. The internationally known intellectual is the powerful secretary general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League. He previously refused to become foreign minister because it would have been difficult for him to represent the Musharraf government's pro-American policies. Mushahid is also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, from where he presented military-sanctioned proposals such as limited deals between the Taliban and Washington and moves to form a national government in Afghanistan involving renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Most recently, Mushahid held a Senate meeting attended by selected military-anointed intellectuals to condemn possible US action inside Pakistan. Some doubt, therefore, that the Musharraf-Bhutto tango will work. "This idea of a civilian president coordinating with a chief of army staff is not possible. Once Musharraf steps down as military chief, no chief of army staff would listen to him," retired Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, former Multan corps commander and director general of the ISI, told Asia Times Online. Pakistan might get its regime change - but not exactly as planned in the corridors of power in Washington.