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Saturday, November 17, 2007

The general pulls a fast one

By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - A few days after President General Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency on November 10, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the secret service agency, met with leaders of the opposition parties to decide on a roadmap for a caretaker administration leading to general parliamentary elections in January and then to a post-election government. The opposition parties, including the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, and the ruling Pakistan Muslim

League, finalized a seat adjustment mechanism through which these leading parties would receive significant representation in the next government. At the same time, the ISI had a separate meeting with the Pakistan People's Party and assured its leader, Benazir Bhutto, that she would head a caretaker administration as prime minister. As a result of these meetings, the opposition response to the declaration of the state of emergency was relatively muted - most reaction came from the legal profession, outraged at the sacking of Supreme Court judges, as well as the chief justice, and the suspension of the constitution. But this week, the day that Pakistan finalized the details of a visit by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, starting on Friday, it also announced an interim government - and without Bhutto. Mohammedmian Soomro, chairman of Pakistan's Senate since 2003, was appointed interim prime minister to prepare for the parliamentary elections. The message from the government to Bhutto was that it wanted a "non-controversial" premier. Bhutto's reaction was immediate and cutting - she called on Musharraf to step down as president, something she had not done before. But again the reaction of her supporters and those of other opposition groups was muted and they were unable to mobilize a significant show of strength on the streets. Even Imran Khan, the leader of one of the smaller opposition parties, Tehrik-e-Insaf, was handed over to the authorities by students of one of the parties close to his. So at the time of Negroponte's visit, there are unlikely to be any opposition rallies, and he will be advised that the only players in the ring are militants, including the Taliban, and the Pakistani military headed by Musharraf. And Negroponte will be told that the military is quite capable of dealing with this threat. In other words, the US-inspired plan for Musharraf to form a political alliance with Bhutto is off the table - for now at least. Lulled by Musharraf's intrigues, Bhutto has not been able to stitch together an alliance of opposition parties. In the meantime, perhaps as a show for Negroponte, Musharraf has switched on the "war on terror" in the Swat Valley in North-West Frontier Province. Over the past few days there has been a surge in military operations in the area against militants, including the Pakistani Taliban. Musharraf can flick the off switch at any time, subject to the demands of the militants. They have already been granted their call for sharia law in the Swat Valley, but the real issue is the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the key areas from which supplies are sent to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Either way, Negroponte knows that he will be dealing with Musharraf, who for now has effectively sidelined the opposition. Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at

Musharraf remains the US's best option

By M K Bhadrakumar

The visit by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Islamabad on Friday has a parallel in an extraordinary American mission jointly undertaken by the then-secretary of state Warren Christopher and national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to the Pakistani capital almost 28 years ago. The photograph of Brzezinski at the Khyber Pass peering down the sights of an AK-47 into Afghanistan under Soviet occupation still stands out in the annals of the Cold War. Analogies are never quite in order in politics, but what is useful to

remember is that the two top-ranking officials of the Jimmy Carter administration were actually dealing with a Pakistani regime much weaker than the one President General Pervez Musharraf presently heads. Pakistan wasn't a nuclear power in February 1980, and General Zia ul-Haq was the pariah of the international community. Zia had all the infirmities that dictators were afflicted with - an abominable human-rights record, his nuclear intent, his aversion to pluralism, his dalliance with religious bigotry, to name a few. He ignored pleas from world capitals and executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister. The Pakistani armed forces were in terrible shape, and the country's economy was losing steam. The US Congress' Symington Amendment barred all US economic and military aid to Pakistan. US officials (and newspapers) were confident Zia would grab the Brzezinski-Christopher package offered as inducement for fighting a clandestine war in Afghanistan. In the event, it took a further 14 months for Washington to work out the terms and conditions for bringing Zia's regime on board. An account of the riveting drama was later made available to readers by the then vice chief of army staff, General K M Arif, in his memoirs, Working with Zia. The salient point is that Zia simply decided he would be better off not dealing with the "lame duck" Carter. Like the George W Bush administration today, Carter's administration too was wounded in the loins. The Islamic revolution in Iran of 1979 had inflicted a near fatal wound on Carter. Zia patiently waited for the regime change in Washington that brought in Ronald Reagan. After all, Pakistan had a future to consider beyond Carter's term in office. A 'transactional relationship' Negroponte would do well to remember that episode of the Zia era when he flies in from Africa on Friday and sits down with Musharraf in Rawalpindi. He should disregard the cacophony that Musharraf has his "back against the wall", or that the people have risen in revolt and the Pakistani military is about to refuse orders to fire on them, or that the Taliban are looking over the walls of Army House in Rawalpindi. Equally, he is unlikely to get very far unless he correctly estimates the "check list" of the Pakistan armed forces. That was also the problem 28 years back. Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and a presidential aspirant) correctly identified the problem when he said this week that the relationship between the US and Pakistan is "largely transactional - and this transaction isn't working for either party". Biden argued, "We [the US] must move beyond this transactional relationship - the exchange of aid for services - to the normal functional relationship we enjoy with all our other military allies and friendly nations." What he means is that the US and Pakistan must end their illicit nocturnal relationship. Indeed, the problem is that the Pakistani regime doesn't like being treated as an occasional fling when Washington is in heat. It doesn't think it is getting from Washington what is its due as the US's unique "non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] ally" in the region, and as a nuclear power with a big standing. This is not a problem restricted to the Pakistani military. Biden noted, "Many Pakistanis believe that the moment Osama bin Laden is gone, US interest will be gone with him." The perennial Pakistani grievance has been that America is not a reliable ally and that US support is purely tactical. Does it require much ingenuity to see why the Musharraf regime's participation in the "war on terror" remains ambivalent at best? Biden put his finger neatly on another aspect of the problem when he sized up that Pakistan harbors a great grievance about "our blossoming relationship with rival India". The grievance takes an acute form when Washington brusquely tells Islamabad that it does not qualify for the sort of nuclear cooperation that it proposes to have with New Delhi. Curiously, while opinion in India seems divided about the proposed nuclear cooperation with the US, Pakistanis see it as a dream deal that they would give anything to secure. Pakistani interlocutors never tire of complimenting Indian officials for negotiating such a good deal. Washington doesn't seem to notice the Pakistani military's sensitivities about the US's perceived step-motherly attitude. From the military's perspective, the US is forging a strategic partnership with India, which is bound to elevate the latter into a super league of world powers. In comparison, the Pakistani military is entrapped in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal tracts as a border militia. Biden is right in saying it is time Washington addresses the core issues of the US-Pakistan relationship. The issue is not about Musharraf alone. There is doubtless a massive undercurrent of "anti-Americanism" in Pakistani society. Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid recently noted that the animus against the US runs "most markedly in the educated middle classes". Democracy on Musharraf's terms In sum, Musharraf and the Pakistani military would see no reason to succumb to US pressure tactics. The increasingly defiant tone, almost unwillingly, in Musharraf's stance with regard to Washington must be carefully noted. Anyone who thought Musharraf and Bush were dissimulating disagreement would have realized by now that is not the case. Through a series of deft maneuverings, Musharraf shook free of US shackles. Conceivably, pushed against the wall, the Pakistani military would choose to wait (like Zia did) to open a fresh page with a new administration in Washington. Pakistan can afford to do that. As it is, 75% of all supplies for the US forces in Afghanistan flow through or over Pakistan, including 40% of all fuel. The Pentagon press secretary admitted on Wednesday that the supply lines are already "a real area of concern for our commanders in Afghanistan". Also, Islamabad cannot be unaware that apart from the Afghan war, regional tensions involving the US with Iran, Russia and Central Asia are likely to accentuate in the near term, which in turn will only increase US dependence on Pakistan. The Pakistani corps commanders met in Rawalpindi on Sunday. Since then, through a series of public statements, Musharraf and people close to him have revealed much about what Negroponte can hope to get done during his day-long visit, which will be the US diplomat's second visit to Pakistan within a month. First, Negroponte will be off the mark if he imagines he can still catapult former prime minister Benazir Bhutto into high office. (She seems to pin residual hopes on Negroponte, though.)

The army and the Punjabi-dominated establishment simply refuse to allow Bhutto to come into the corridors of power. The establishment sees Bhutto as a difficult personality - "the most corrupt, sluggish and extravagant politician in Pakistan", according to Musharraf's close confidante, Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed - and as a spent force politically. Musharraf has publicly debunked her claims to popularity in Pakistan. The establishment ensures that the country's democratic opposition won't rally around Bhutto. It is confident that elections set for January will go ahead with or without her participation.

Meanwhile, Bhutto will need time to emerge from the pervasive cloud of public suspicion that she secretly consorts with the regime even now. Even if Bhutto wins majority support in the elections - which is highly unlikely - the present constitution doesn't allow her to become prime minister for a third time. US pressure tactic won't work Second, Negroponte may complain, but the regime remains adamant that the state of emergency is needed to ensure the smooth conduct of elections. The regime calculates that ultimately, political parties will participate in the elections regardless of the emergency. Third, the regime will cut back on the "war on terror" if Negroponte tries any of his famous tricks learnt in previous diplomatic assignments (Honduras, Ferdinand Marcos' Philippines), like threatening to cut off military aid. On the contrary, he may pick up from Rawalpindi a fresh list of demands for military aid. Musharraf told The New York Times on Tuesday that the military is finding it impossible to silence an amateur FM radio station run by the leading pro-Taliban religious leader in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, for want of "technical means to do it". He underscored that the US must therefore give more aid. He also pointed out that out of 10 Cobra helicopters that the US has supplied, "We have only one that is serviceable. We need more support." Fourth, Negroponte is bound to disturb a hornets' nest if he broaches, however diplomatically, the subject of the control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Islamabad has taken very seriously a report in the Washington Post that the Bush administration has drawn up "contingency plans" in the event the Pakistani military loses control of the weapons. A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly denounced the "irresponsible conjecture" and warned: "If there is any threat to our nuclear assets and sovereignty, we have the capacity to defend ourselves ... suffice it to say that Pakistan possesses adequate retaliatory capacity to defend its strategic assets and sovereignty." Again, it must be understood that at every stage in recent months Musharraf has acted on the basis of decisions reached by the collegium of corps commanders. While propagandists (in Pakistan and abroad) may suggest that an army revolt against Musharraf is conceivable, the general indeed exudes the confidence of a military man who commands absolute loyalty. In any case, the Pakistani army has never witnessed a break in its chain of command at the top, nor staged a coup against one of its own. In fact, it would be the height of folly for Washington to try to create dissensions within the Pakistani army, which is the only institution that transcends the various templates of ethnic, regional, and religious differences that threaten the country's unity and integrity. As long as the army stays united, the Pakistani state has inherent stability and a fair chance of outliving the weaknesses of its civilian institutions, democratic elections or any of the fragilities associated with civil society. Musharraf was essentially right when he said this week, "The military is strong and very disciplined. As long as the armed forces of Pakistan remain united, which they will and are, no harm can come to Pakistan. The harm can come from the political dilemma. We have to resolve the political dilemma." Of course, as long as the armed forces remain united, the "Talibanization" of Pakistan will remain a very low probability - almost non-existent. The implications for regional stability are self-evident. Persuasion may work Thus, given the political gridlock ensuing from the breakdown of the Musharraf-Bhutto deal and the absence of any plan B, Negroponte will have to take a good second look at what is on offer from Musharraf - a continuation of the present ruling alliance with adjustments. He could always offer improvements. That's far from the best scenario possible, but there may be little choice in the matter. Significantly, a caretaker government has already been sworn in on the eve of Negroponte's arrival, headed by Mohammad Mian Soomro, the chairman of the Pakistan Senate and a dependable hand. It is just as well that Negroponte is due to call on Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, cousin of the powerful leader of the present ruling alliance, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. Elahi is widely tipped as the next prime minister of Pakistan. Finally, Negroponte will know that after all, Washington has ways to influence Musharraf, and there is no need to insult the general and unintentionally unleash the anger of the Pakistani military. Musharraf has already offered that the choice is entirely Bhutto's to be conciliatory or confrontational. Negroponte and Musharraf could find common ground in lifting the emergency as soon as possible - they could even agree on a date - or removing restrictions on the media and civil society, or, better still, releasing political leaders and activists from detention. One thing is clear. The military is not with Bhutto, and the country doesn't seem to trust her. Musharraf happens to be the only acceptable game in Islamabad.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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