Saturday, January 12, 2008

Did We Just Lose Pakistan...To Nawaz Sharif and Saudi Arabia?

With Pakistan in the middle of a burgeoning security and political crisis, the report from Islamabad is that Musharraf has finally turned to the opposition to provide his government with stability...and his nation with unity.

But he’s not turning to Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, the supposedly empowering force that the United States has been promoting as the solution to Pakistan’s problems.

He’s turning to the PML-N and Nawaz Sharif, who enjoy the backing of the conservative Islamic government of Saudi Arabia, as I reported in Nawaz Sharif: Saudi Arabia’s Plan B for Pakistan? back in November.

That’s going to cause some heartburn and late nights at Condoleezza Rice’s shop, as well as a round of gormless headscratching by the U.S. papers, who have had a hard time looking beyond the U.S. script—and the PPP.

Dawn, Pakistan’s most authoritative media outlet, reports:

Shahbaz ‘asked to join national govt’

By Amir Wasim

ISLAMABAD, Jan 12: Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) head Shahbaz Sharif dashed to Islamabad on Saturday and returned to Lahore in the evening after holding separate meetings with an aide of President Pervez Musharraf, the Saudi ambassador and a former bureaucrat, sources told Dawn.

The sources said the PML-N president had met Brig (retd) Niaz Ahmad, who passed a message from President Musharraf on to Mr Sharif about the formation of a national government before the general election.Sources in the PML-N said the president had suggested Shahbaz Sharif to become a part of the proposed government. The sources said the president had also proposed a “future role” for Shahbaz Sharif after the elections.

However, they added, Mr Shahbaz had told Mr Niaz that he would not reply to the proposals without consulting Nawaz Sharif....

They said Niaz Ahmad had requested the Sharif brothers to “soften the language” against the president at their public meetings.

Brig (retd) Niaz, a former instructor to President Musharraf, has been negotiating with the PML-N and the PPP leaders for the past several years and had held several meeting with the Sharif brothers in London and Saudi Arabia.

In the past, the PML-N had denied such contacts, but on Saturday a group of reporters caught Mr Sharif outside the Embassy Road residence of the retired brigadier when he was leaving the place after the meeting.

Talking to reporters, the PML-N president said his meeting with Brig Niaz should not be construed as a ‘political move’. He said he had come only to pay a “courtesy call”....Earlier, a senior PML-N leader, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, ruled out at a press conference the possibility of his party becoming a part of a national government under President Musharraf, indicating that the party had officially received “some sort of a proposal along this line”.

...SAUDI AMBASSADOR: Shahbaz Sharif also met the Saudi ambassador in Islamabad, Ali Awadhi Al Asseri, and a former director-general of the Federal Investigation Agency, Wajahat Latif.Party sources said Mr Sharif had met the ambassador to thank him for the hospitality extended to the Sharif family during its stay in Saudi Arabia.

About his meeting with Wajahat Latif, the PML-N leader said that he had come to meet him “only to offer my good wishes”.[emph. added]

Did you notice that the Saudi ambassador was participated in this supersensitive high level meeting? Didja?

It remains to be seen if Sharif responds to Musharraf’s initiative.

It will be hard because Sharif genuinely hates Musharraf—who deposed him—and Sharif has been sedulously cultivating his opposition cred by roasting Musharraf at every opportunity and demanding he step down.

Musharraf is plainly trying to co-opt Sharif. And I hope he does.

Because Pakistan needs to ameliorate its political crisis if it is to confront its security crisis. And until recently the exact opposite was happening.

When Islamist extremists attacked, the opposition used it as a stick to beat Musharraf with, thundering that he couldn’t provide security for the country. And, I believe, Islamist militants saw this and determined that now was an opportune time to further divide and damage Pakistan’s secular society with further attacks.

For Pakistan’s political elite inside and outside the government, the turning point might have been the horrific suicide bombing at the Lahore High Court on January 10.

It apparently targeted policemen assembling in preparation for a protest march by local lawyers, killing over 20.

From Dawn:

Aftab Cheema, SSP Operations, said the bomber had a 14-kg explosive device, with three kilograms of ball bearings, strapped to his body. He said the size of the ball bearings was larger than the ones used in earlier blasts.’’A man rammed into our ranks and soon after there was a huge explosion,” said policeman Syed Imtiaz Hussain, who suffered wounds in his legs and groin.

“I saw the bodies of other policemen burning. It was like hell.’’
“I saw about 50 to 60 injured policemen, bleeding, scattered everywhere. They were asking for water.”

They found the bomber’s head 100 feet away.

Noted South Asia watcher Syed Saleem Shahzad reported on a chain of events that indicates to me that Pakistan’s elites has decided that the political paralysis incurred by trying to please the United States, give lip service to its unpopular and wrongheaded policies, and coddle its leaderless client, the PPP—and the growing security crisis feeding off it--is no longer acceptable.

In a recent report in Asia Times subtitled Washington May Lose a Friend, he wrote:

...there is serious consideration for repositioning the country’s foreign policy as neutral in the United States-led “war on terror”.

This would mean non-interference in the restive tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. These are virtually autonomous areas where Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants have established bases and vital supply lines into Afghanistan. Such a move would have devastating effects on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) efforts to control the ever-growing insurgency in Afghanistan.

Following a meeting of the Pakistan corps commanders headed by the new chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, a press release said there would be a review of the situation in the tribal areas and, instead of citing any plans for military operations there against militants, the release said the military’s decisions would be based on “the wishes of the nation”. Islamabad’s rethink has been prompted by the violence and political crisis resulting from the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi last month. [emph. added]

Ishfaq Kiyani is of course, the purportedly pro-Western army boss who was floated as potential coup material by Western neo-conservatives because he was expected to walk hand in hand with Benazir Bhutto through a post-Musharraf field of sunshine and buttercups to smite the Islamist extremists permeating Pakistan’s borderlands.

Guess not.

It seems that the army has decided the ongoing political drift—with Musharraf floundering in the polls with favorability ratings in the 20s and serving as a pinata for the PPP and PML-N as a result of his colossal political ineptitude while the country burns--is unacceptable.

The army’s solution, however, is not to wait for the elections and allow the PPP, emboldened by U.S. support, to claim a mandate to govern and threaten to exacerbate the security crisis by promoting aggressive anti-Islamist, anti-Taleban, and anti-al Qaeda border policies that are anathema to the army, the intelligence services, and the country as a whole.

Instead, in a deal supported by the Saudis and brokered by the army, Musharraf pre-emptively proposes an alliance with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, a group that is both reasonably popular to the electorate and acceptable to the conservative and increasingly anti-American elite.

In sum: for the time being, Mush doesn’t go.

At least, he’s not going to get pushed out by the PPP alone, and the government has decided to make its move to prevent a genuine alliance between the PPP and PML-N, which could cause serious problems.

It doesn’t hurt that Musharraf has been sounding downright reasonable:

"If that (impeachment) happens, let me assure that I'd be leaving office before they would do anything. If they won with this kind of majority and they formed a government that had the intention of doing this, I wouldn't like to stick around," he said. "I would like to quit the scene."

He’s talking about what would happen in the (unlikely) event that the two opposition parties—Bhutto’s PPP and Sharif’s PML-N—were able to win enough seats in the parliamentary elections to a) form a government and b) amend the constitution without the input of the pro-government PML-Q party.

Of course, that scenario isn’t likely if the PML-N enters the government.

If Nawaz Sharif takes up Musharraf on his offer, it’s the U.S. that is left holding the short end of the stick, of course.

And opinion in Pakistan probably feels that Washington’s embarrassment is richly deserved.

Cheney’s people recently tried to exploit the unrest inside Pakistan to float an irresponsible plan to conduct expanded military operations under CIA direction in Pakistan’s frontierlands.

The Democratic presidential candidates, not to be outdone and led by Hillary Clinton, had an attack of stupids, proposing various ways to inject ourselves further into Pakistan’s security regime in order to protect the world against Pakistan’s nukes.

Clinton’s plan was convincingly debunked by Jeffrey Lewis over at Arms Control Wonk.

Inside Pakistan, of course, these U.S. initiatives caused a firestorm.

Musharraf, undoubtedly with a hearty amen or whatever the Islamic equivalent is from his countrymen, told the bug out:

“The United States seems to think that what our army cannot do, they can do, this is a very wrong perception,” he said.“I challenge anybody to come into our mountains. They would regret that day. It’s not easy there.”

As for Hillary:

[Musharraf] also criticised US senator Hillary Clinton's proposal to place Pakistan's nuclear weapons under US and British supervision. According to Musharraf, Clinton's statement was "an intrusion into our privacy, into our sensitivity... She doesn't seem to understand how well-guarded these assets are."

Saleem Shahzad provides a pretty clear idea of the implications of the shift toward a more nuanced and conciliatory Pakistani security policy that puts Islamabad on Washington’s bad side.

Should Pakistan scale down or halt its operations in the tribal areas, where it has thousands of troops, the US might be forced to act. Reports have been swirling for some time of US plans to undertake aggressive covert operations inside Pakistan.

Despite ominous grunts from the Dick Cheney quadrant, it looks like Pakistan might not care anymore what we think: (Saleem Shahzad, again):

[Ex ISI chief] Durrani, who regularly attends international sessions of British and American policy think tanks, said Pakistan’s military operations in the tribal areas as part of the “war on terror” had resulted in problems in Pakistani cities.

When asked about the corps commanders’ conference and the possibility of peace dialogue between the tribals and the government instead of military operations, Durrani said, “I don’t know about the exact agenda of the conference, but you can’t tell me of any disagreement anywhere in the country that Pakistan should shun military operations and initiate dialogue.”

Durrani, who participated in the joint Pakistan-Afghanistan peace efforts in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last year, continued, “Nobody is in favor of operations, not even those who are actually doing the operations. Even people from [the port city of] Karachi, who are considered ultra-liberal [are against operations] and on the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] operation, I found them calling it irrational.” Durrani was referring to security forces storming the radical mosque in Islamabad last year to root out militants.

It looks like Pakistan’s army, with pressing problems of its own that we seem incapable of understanding or acknowledging, sees no obstacle to distancing themselves from a failed American doctrine and lame-duck administration that they never really cared for

And when an ex-ISI chief who is the smiling face of professional Pakistani security policy on the Western think tank circuit goes on the record to make statements like that, I think that’s the fat lady singing. It’s over for the Bush administration in Pakistan.

And that would mean bad news for the PPP, which can no longer count on Musharraf’s government yielding to U.S. pressure in the matters of eschewing egregious voterigging against the PPP, tolerating PPP posturing and street demonstrations to gain additional political leverage, or accommodating a leading role for the PPP in the post-election government.

If Musharraf bags the PML-N, the government will feel free to drop the hammer on the PPP; and it's already doing plenty, starting with mass detentions of PPP activists in Sindh and illegally parachuting its bespoke hacks into key constituencies, presumably to conduct electoral skullduggery.

I came across a particularly egregious piece of ISI pushback against the PPP--and the US--in the Pakistan News, via (since I’m quoting at length I’ve highlighted the really striking parts):

The US embassy in Islamabad has termed the reports connecting Washington to an international conspiracy behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination “completely outrageous and unfounded” amid fresh revelations that the slain leader had established indirect contacts with Dr AQ Khan and Lt-Gen (retd) Hamid Gul shortly before her death. ...

Ms Colton [of the U.S. embassy] was asked to comment on the growing perception in Pakistan that Ms Bhutto’s killing was part of an international conspiracy to which the US was said to be a leading part with the grand design of destabilising and denuclearising Pakistan.

When asked if Washington had “pressurised” Ms Bhutto to strike a deal with President Musharraf, a fact that has been confirmed by sources in her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and also a top presidential aide, Colton said, “our consistent interest is to see Pakistan succeed as a moderate, democratic country, led by the choice of the Pakistani people. We do not endorse particular candidates or parties. We are ready to work with whomever the Pakistani people choose to lead them.”
While the US embassy completely distanced itself from the growing perception in Pakistan that Islamabad was facing a serious international conspiracy to denuclearise Pakistan, a source having close relations with the slain chairperson of the PPP told this correspondent that Ms Bhutto had been punished for changing the script of the international conspirators as she wanted to save Pakistan from any damage.

Well, it looks like America has a “growing problem” in Pakistan.

This is a pretty crude piece of nationalistic anti-American agitprop and I’m amazed the embassy responded.

It gets better:

The source, while referring to his meeting with Benazir shortly before her death, revealed that after her return to Pakistan ending her nine-year exile she had changed her policy and started distancing herself from what some leading world capitals wanted her to pursue.

Not only that she had developed indirect contacts with the likes of Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan as reported already to pursue a peaceful negotiated settlement of extremism instead of using force or letting any foreign country intervene, and also sent separate messages to both Dr AQ Khan and Hamid Gul.

The source also shared the names of two of the messengers but requested not to make these public. He said Gul, who was one of the four persons nominated by Ms Bhutto in her October 2007 letter sent to the president in case she was killed, was conveyed that Ms Bhutto was under pressure to include the former ISI chief’s name in the list.

Similarly, Dr AQ Khan, the source claimed, was conveyed to forget about her earlier statement that when in power she would give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, who is under house arrest for more than four years.

Although, Dr AQ Khan or any of his immediate relation was not accessible to media persons to confirm such an indirect contact, the source said Benazir got back a message from the scientist, who was quoted to have said, “I consider you more than a daughter.”

Gul confirmed that he received Benazir’s message from two different sources associated with the PPP. He said he was told that Benazir did not want to include his name in the list of four, who were after her life.

The last message that he received, Gul disclosed, was delivered to him on December 24, three days before the assassination of Ms Bhutto. “The messenger told me that Benazir stated that Gen Sahib (Gul) would know what pressures she was referring to,” Gul said.

He said according to his information, Ms Bhutto had changed the script of the influential world capitals and for this very crime, she was assassinated.

The former ISI chief, while offering himself for testimony before an independent commission comprising respected retired Supreme Court judges, said he had the conviction that Ms Bhutto was made a scapegoat by the international players conspiring against Pakistan.

Saying that Benazir’s killing was done in an extremely sophisticated and professional manner, he stated that to his reckoning it was a Mossad operation. He said knowing well that a popular leader like Ms Bhutto could not get along with Musharraf in the government, the international powers pressurised both sides to strike a deal.

“It was nothing less than a dream theme but still done to assassinate Ms Bhutto to cause destabilisation in Pakistan.”

Referring to the statements of the US presidential candidates and the latest utterance of ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, Gul said all this was being done under the greater design against Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

This certainly wins points for chutzpah.

Especially the part where Gul, the ex-ISI chief, while claiming that Bhutto was reaching out to him, labors to explain away the fact that Bhutto named him as one of her four most likely assassins in a letter she wrote last year.

Looking for electoral traction, the Musharraf government is trying to wrap itself in the mantle of protector of Pakistan’s sovereignty, its nuclear deterrent, and for good measure, A.Q. Khan.

More than that, it’s trying to blunt the PPP’s appeal by appropriating Bhutto’s legacy, claiming she was abandoning the Bush administration and detaching herself from the confrontational policies demanded by Washington in favor of...the same nationalist rhetoric vis a vis the U.S. and conciliatory policies vis a vis A.Q. Khan and Islamists that the Musharraf government plans to carry out with the PML-N...and died as a direct result!

Gul’s over-the-top allegation that the Mossad did the hit on Bhutto, I think identifies this whole article as bona fide, brazenly ham-fisted ISI “everything including the kitchen sink and we can get away with anything” creative writing product.

The ironic thing is that I think in her relentlessly chameleonlike way, Bhutto probably did all those things.

With power almost in her grasp, she intended to neglect her promise to confront the non-democratic, extremist, and anti-secular forces inside Pakistan that she had made so fulsomely to Washington, and instead was preparing to make peace with them.

Instead, after her death, her daring stratagems, fine calculations, and equivocal actions—and the unrealistic hopes of the United States—may come to naught and ironically be appropriated as the preferred tactics of our successful competitors—Nawaz Sharif and Saudi Arabia.

We’ll soon know if the Musharraf—PML-N alliance bears fruit--and if the Bush administration has fumbled Pakistan out of our sphere of influence and into Saudi Arabia's.


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