Thursday, January 31, 2008

Pakistan's Desperate Hours

It looks like the American strategy of crushing the Taleban militants in a lumbering pincer movement between NATO troops, airpower, and special ops in Afghanistan to the west and the Pakistani army to the east may have an unexpected, unmanageable, and catastrophic side effect—expansion of the conflict into Pakistan’s urban heartland.

And perhaps the only way for Pakistan to survive is for the Western project in Afghanistan to perish.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the go-to guy for reporting on South Asia security affairs, provides a fistful of key pieces in the Pakistan puzzle in recent articles for Asia Times.

He reports on a new U.S. base at Kunar in western Afghanistan that just became operational...only three miles from the Pakistan border (34 deg 38 ‘ 07.07” N, 70 deg 30’ 57.61” E for Google Earth buffs).

And, yes, the base will be used for operations inside Pakistan whether Pakistan likes it or not:

"However, with the new Kunar base, American special forces will carry out extended operations, which means a limited war against Taliban and al-Qaeda assets in the tribal areas. These clandestine operations can be done with or without Pakistan's consent."

That’s probably the message that Mitch McConnell and Michael Hayden carried to President Musharraf when they visited Pakistan in January.

Shahzad briskly parses the significance of the base for the Taleban and al Qaeda sympathizers in Pakistan’s mountainous west.

The existence of the base is well-known to the enemy, who attacked it several times during construction. Now that it’s operational, high value Taleban and al Qaeda targets will relocate to other parts of the territory.

But, obeying the iron law of unexpected consequences, the new base will encourage the militants to redouble their attacks on America’s weakest point—not the well fortified base, but Pakistan’s fragile political system.

Expect the security situation inside Pakistan to deteriorate as the militants add increased terror attacks in the heartland to their portfolio in an effort to convince Pakistan’s military that the costs of supporting U.S. policy in the region are not worth the costs.

Dealing with the Taleban inside Pakistan is apparently no longer a simple matter of Islamabad using a cautious twin track policy of pressure and conciliation to keep the Pushtun militants down on the farm and not overly exercised about the priorities of Islamabad or the fate of their brethren inside Afghanistan.

The activities of the Pakistani Taleban have become part of the big picture of Taleban strategy for the recovery of Afghanistan—a strategy that, according to Shahzad and anybody else who looks at the bleak situation, is going very well indeed.

Recently Shahzad reported that the Taleban’s Mullah Omar threw President Musharraf a lifeline by ordering the Pakistani Taleban to desist from attacks against Pakistani security forces and focus all efforts on the highly promising Afghan campaign.

The leader of the Pakistan Taleban, Baitullah Mehsud, didn’t go along and was drummed out of the organization.

Now that Mehsud is everybody’s least favorite Islamist militant, he and his large force are the target of a determined borderland campaign by the Pakistani army. And the CIA agreed to blame him (on the basis of a pretty dubious cell phone conversation that Pakistani intelligence claims to have intercepted) as the mastermind of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

He’s not going quietly. His group temporarily overran a couple forts in Waziristan. One of his cells apparently staged a bank robbery in Karachi. When the police got a tip and staged a raid, thinking they were pursuing the normal urban miscreants, they were met by a hail of light machine gunfire.

Shahzad writes :

Clearly, these were no ordinary robbers, as their weapons and fighting skills quickly demonstrated. After three hours, the paramilitary Rangers were called in, but by then two policemen had been killed.

That’s guaranteed to annoy the Pakistani army, so we can expect them to chivvy Mehsud across Pakistan with even more ardor.

So far so good for all involved—except Mehsud, of course.

A convenient and obstreperous scapegoat takes the fall for Bhutto’s assassination, discipline is restored inside the Taleban, a dangerous nest of militants is neutralized, and Pakistan gets reduced tensions in its western borderlands.

But opportunities inside Afghanistan and the threat from Kuna—and from more aggressive unilateral U.S. operations inside Pakistan in general—dictate an extension of the Taleban’s overall Afghan strategy into Pakistan.

The critical point has arrived as the Taleban high command extends the Afghan battle into Pakistan by attacking the assets, infrastructure, and policy supporting NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The military battle has already begun. The political battle will soon be joined.

According to Shahzad, the Mehsud-free Pakistan Taleban is preparing to announce a truce with Pakistan in North Waziristan.

But to me that doesn’t necessarily mean a cessation of hostilities inside Pakistan.

It means that militant attacks directed at NATO convoys and related infrastructure will probably continue, placing Pakistan’s military in the politically awkward position of pursuing operations against the Taleban apparently for the sole purpose of helping Uncle Sam trample on its Pushtun brethren in eastern Afghanistan.

The relatively untold story of Afghanistan is NATO’s reliance on truck routes from Karachi through Peshawar for about 40% of its supplies.

The militants inside Pakistan are already attacking NATO convoys and transportation lines. Just this week, Pakistan’s military announced the recapture of a key and vulnerable artery leading to Afghanistan after a fierce battle—the mile and a half long Kohat tunnel—from the militants.

A challenge to Pakistan’s role in NATO’s logistics is a major dilemma for the Pakistani army.

Expressions of Pushtun and Islamic parochialism in the border regions—and their extension into beleaguered Afghanistan--can be accommodated. But yielding to Mullah Omar’s pressure and moving Pakistan to the anti-Western side of the Asian geopolitical equation is still unthinkable for Pakistan’s proud and powerful, if not particularly successful, army.

It would destroy the standing of Pakistan’s military as a credible and respected regional force—and Pakistan as a pro-Western power and meaningful player in the global security regime-- if the army agreed to cut off the Afghanistan resupply route as the price of peace with the Taleban.

A Pakistan security official drew a line in the sand for the benefit of Shahzad, Washington, and any Taleban official who happens to read Asia Times:

"Pakistan has conceded to many of the [Pakistani] Taliban's demands for peace, such as the release of fellow tribesmen. But if they demand something like the closure of NATO's supply lines from Pakistan, it is beyond Pakistan's orbit. The Americans sought Pakistan's cooperation [in the "war on terror"] , in return they pledged billions of dollars in aid. But they wanted steady supply lines for NATO forces in Afghanistan," the official said.

“Pakistan has stretched itself to the limit for the sake of peace in the country, it has even struck deals with al-Qaeda for it to stop attacking Pakistan. But if they [al-Qaeda and militants] don't appreciate Pakistan's interests and compulsions, then...defeat is not an option.

Shahzad dutifully reports this determined speech, but warily concludes that the Pakistani army will have its hands full if it has to deal with a campaign of urban terrorism:

Last Saturday, Pakistani security forces unearthed a militant cell operating from the military city of Rawalpindi and recovered a huge cache of weapons. It is believed militants were planning devastating attacks on military installations. However, massive terrors operations in the federal capital of Islamabad are the biggest fear. Some believe these might be just round the corner.

Even though the militants can’t overthrow Pakistan’s government, they can force Pakistan’s army into a bloody and expensive battle on behalf of a NATO effort that offers the nation few if any benefits beyond the massive US subsidy and a lot of human, social, and political costs.

Outlook for Pakistan: an unwinnable war in pursuit of impossible goals. For both sides.

Not good.

It looks like the conventional security equation for South Asia is back asswards. Pakistan doesn’t hold the key to Afghanistan. Trying to tip the struggle into the West’s favor by injecting more arms, money, and backbone into Pakistan is simply going to expand the conflict into a nation totally unable to deal with it.

With Afghanistan driving the strategic thinking inside Pakistan both for the militants and their opponents, there is no magic combination of force and conciliation inside Pakistan’s fractured and vulnerable society that can solve the political and military equation.

The key to Pakistan is Afghanistan. Only decisive victory by the Western forces (very unlikely) or by the Taleban (much more likely) will alleviate the crisis in Pakistan’s borderlands.

No wonder serious discussion of Pakistan’s security is so hard to come by in the speeches of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan’s security is at the mercy of events in Afghanistan, beyond the reach of the army, let alone the civilian kleptocracy.

And no wonder the United States clings to Musharraf as the only national leader willing to persist in an increasingly costly, unpopular, and unrewarding support role for the Western effort in Afghanistan—because only Musharraf believes that upholding the prestige of Pakistan’s military as America’s worthy ally must remain at the core of Pakistan’s national identity.

Even at the cost of Pakistan’s survival as a civil society.

Truly, to look at Pakistan’s security situation with a clear and honest eye is to despair.

Photo from Soldiersmediacenter. Caption: 070822-A-6849A-667 -- Scouts from 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), pull overwatch during Operation Destined Strike while 2nd Platoon, Able Company searches a village below the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan Aug. 22.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Slouching Toward Islamabad...and February 18

As the 40 day period of mourning comes to an end, nothing very good seems to have come out of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Eager to capitalize on the outpouring of outrage in the aftermath of the assassination, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by her widower Asif Zardari, refuses to consider any reforms, procedures, or policies that might put time, distance, and cool reflection between it and the election.

Just the opposite, in fact.

The party is insistent on participating in what its own leaders call a rigged election on February 18.

Apparently, after repurposing itself as a dynastic artifact to be passed down inside the Bhutto family, the PPP has decided what Pakistan needs isn’t democracy. What Pakistan needs a quasi-religious cult of personality that will clothe a determined grasp for power with the trappings of a mass movement.

Rallying the faithful on January 28 in the PPP’s Sindh heartland, Zardari proclaimed the new orthodoxy:

The PPP co-chairman deliberated at length in a somber mood about Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and her wisdom, bravery, intuition, leadership, and her martyrdom. He said that Shaheed Benazir Bhutto had the intuition about her martyrdom and her judge is the history.

She has defeated the dictatorial and evil forces by laying down her life. Today, the people consider her as an angel and her politics as prayers. She raised the stature of politicians and forced even the dictator of the day to declare her a martyr.

"We consider her will as an order" announcing that the will would be the part of Shaheed Chairperson's book and added that if our eyes are filled with tears than our hearts are filled with fire but we would transform our grief and sufferings into strength.

There’s more:

The PPP co-chairman also expressed his will to be buried in Garhi Khuda Bux with two pre-conditions including that he is martyred while struggling to accomplish the mission of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto or his life comes to an end while continuing with her mission for Pakistan.

He authorised all the party leaders, workers and the people of Pakistan to halt him and tell if he drifts away from the mission of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto adding that he would have no right to be buried in Garhi Khuda Bux if he drifts off from the mission.

And there’s more:

He pointed out that rotten eggs in politics and these political Eskimos were talking of break up of the party because they don't have the level of intellect to understand the depth of Bhutoism.

More more more:

PPP Sindh Information Secretary and member of the CEC Dr Fehmida Mirza in her brief speech said Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto are not personalities but they are ideology in themselves.

The word made flesh, huh? Somebody please whack these people upside the head with an inverted bust of Hegel.

Zardari made a statement that I do agree with:

He said that “Bhuttoism” starts where intellect ends...

But back to our regularly scheduled rapture:

Zardari urged the party workers and friends to get ready for an effective election campaign. "We will have to face our Benazir on the Judgement Day and we must meet her with victory," Zardari told the party aspirants.

Let’s not forget her anointed spiritual, political, and physical heirs:

The crowded porch where the PPP aspirants scrambled to draw as close to the telephone as possible echoed with slogans of 'Jeay Bhutto'. Taking lead from the slogans, Zardari warned 'the enemies' to listen to the voice of the masses as proof of their defeat. "Benazir is alive," he said, adding he had vowed to fulfill the mission of Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto while Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would complete the party mission.

The moment he mentioned Bilawal, the supporters broke into another spell of slogans chanting 'Jeay Bilawal'.

The PPP wants to make sure this fervor is on display outside, and not just inside the polling places:

He said that the PPP supporters would stage a sit-in outside each polling station until the results were announced by the returning officers. Mr Zardari said that the Feb 18 polls were crucial for the integrity of the country and the PPP was confronting the forces which were working against the foundations of the state.

Mr Zardari said the PPP had worked out on a strategy to counter the alleged rigging plans of the government and had given necessary directives to its district presidents, other office-bearers and workers. He added that different committees were being formed from this point of view.

And what happens if participating in a rigged election produces a rigged election?

Bad things. Baaaaaaaaaaad things:

Urging the people to vote peacefully, he said, ''God willing we will win the election and by a huge mandate.''PPP workers will stage a dharna at every polling station to make sure that the results are not rigged, he added.

''The upcoming polls must be transparent because they are crucial for Pakistan's future,'' Zardari said, adding ''The polls are crucial for the federation and the survival of Pakistan. People should vote for the PPP to save Pakistan.''

A cynic—and, yes, I am a cynic—would look at this and say that the PPP has knowingly created the expectations, doctrine, organization, mechanism—and intimidating sense of purpose--to trigger a national crisis if the election doesn’t deliver the majority that the PPP wants.

And, for the time being, it looks like the other players in Pakistan’s electoral drama are sitting back and letting it happen.

President Musharraf has apparently resigned himself to the fact that neither the PPP nor the PML-N is willing to enter into a pre-election alliance that will give his regime some popular legitimacy. He might have some master plan for manipulating the election, but politically he’s too discredited to have a voice in Pakistan’s political discourse. All he can do is buckle his seatbelt and hope he walks away from the crash when Pakistan hits the wall on February 18.

The seatbelt strategy is also all the United States has left. The PPP, intent on running as the more-Islamist-than-thou keeper of the sacred Bhutto flame and nothing else, is now ignoring the US except to push its futile and grandstanding demand for a UN commission to investigate the assassination.

Army Chief of Staff Kiyani, eager to demonstrate the army is ready to move into the post-Musharraf apolitical era, has ostentatiously distanced the army from involvement in Pakistan’s civil society and policing the elections themselves. Time will tell if, faced with the PPP’s potential to exploit the power vacuum at the polls, this was a wise decision or another one of the Pakistan military’s extensive list of boneheaded blunders.

Though it’s not openly discussed, one of the primary targets of the PPP’s pre-election chestthumping is the other opposition party—Nawaz Sharif's PML-N.

In order to claim the national/heavenly/Bhuttoian mandate for the PPP, the Sindh-based PPP has to dominate the only other province in Pakistan that matters—the rich, politically powerful heartland of Punjab.

The Punjab was the stronghold of Nawaz Sharif—until Musharraf’s coup forced Sharif from office and out of the country in 1999. Musharraf co-opted what was apparently a large and eager opportunist or loti segment of Sharif’s party to set up what is derisively known as the King’s Party—the PML-Q. The PML-Q and the Punjab are controlled by the Chaudhry brothers, who distribute patronage, graft, and rigged votes throughout the province on behalf of Musharraf.

In a normal election—or one that passes for a normal election in Pakistan—Sharif’s PML-N party and/or the PML-Q would have delivered a defendably strong showing in Punjab, containing the PPP to Sindh, and delivering that devoutly and virtually universally desired outcome—a hung parliament that could claim popular support but would not confront Musharraf or the army.

Now, with its support in Sindh rock-solid after the assassination of its favorite daughter, Benazir Bhutto—PML-Q hacks are literally afraid to show their faces there, and Sharif, identified with the resented rival province of Punjab, is probably not doing much better—the PPP has turned its sights on Sharif’s home turf.

From Pakistan’s The News:

Addressing for the first time PPP candidates by telephone from the residence of the party's Lahore chapter president, Haji Aziz-ur-Rehman Chan, he expressed the intention to resume the election campaign in the Punjab and hold rallies at all places where Benazir Bhutto was scheduled to go after Liaquat Bagh, as the 40-day mourning period for Benazir was over.

Again, from The News:

He said the party leaders reviewed the PPP’s election prospect in the Punjab in a meeting held on Friday and claimed that the PPP would win the election from that province. The PPP leader said he had convened the meeting of the Punjab PPP leaders and candidates to assess the party position in every district of the Punjab.

So far, despite the de facto breakdown in the alliance of convenience between the PPP and the PML-N, Nawaz Sharif has not yet come up with a public political riposte to the PPP’s challenge.

Sharif’s problems are exacerbated by a weaker organization and smaller candidate list than the PPP, and the competition within Punjab from the unpopular but undoubtedly clout-heavyPML-Q.

His political stature also suffered when his brother engaged in a public, graceless, and fruitless flirtation with Musharraf concerning possible PML-N entry into a pre-election national unity government, presumably to pre-empt the PPP’s powerful electoral push for power on February 18.

Now, with the 40 day mourning period for Bhutto over and Zardari out on the campaign trail, it will be interesting to see how the Punjab, the PML-Q—and Nawaz Sharif—treat him. Zardari’s enemies might decide to take the gloves off to keep the PPP from staking its claim as Pakistan’s only truly national party and defining the PML-N and Q as insignificant rump parties even within their home provinces.

The only political figure who seems to have held on to his stature—and sense—is Imran Khan.

Beyond his charisma, craggy good looks, cricket-star hunkiness, international jet-set presence—and miniscule Pakistan Movement for Justice party—Khan feels, thinks, and says the right thing, recognizing Pakistan’s activist judiciary and not a Benazir Bhutto cult as the true heart of Pakistan’s democratic aspirations.

The Christian Science Monitor interviewed Khan during his trip to the United States and managed, through design, disinterest, and/or general obliviousness, to ignore the fact that Khan’s approach to a meaningful election and a healthy civil society in Pakistan is diametrically opposed not only to Musharraf’s, but to the PPP’s:

Khan said he came to challenge conventional wisdom in the US. His argument: An election in Pakistan could do more harm than good. Restoring an independent judiciary, rather than holding elections, should be the first goal. The US "should back the democratic process, by insisting on the reinstatement of the judges, rather than back any individual in an election," Khan said.

Good luck with that, Imran.

Perhaps, now that the mourning period is officially over, Pakistan can emerge from the nadir of navel-gazing, demoralization, panic, and delusion it appears to have fallen in.

Otherwise, the February 18 elections will not provide catharsis, purpose, or unity.

Instead, they will give birth to continued confusion, rancor, and suffering.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Musharraf Faces Dwindling Options

Musharraf’s window for a graceful exit seems to be closing fast.

For the time being, at least, the attempt to lure Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N into a pre-election government of national unity has failed .

Perhaps the Sharif brothers decided that accepting Musharraf’s offer would have been calamitous for their party’s credibility as an opposition force (for a taste of the indignation that the rumored deal aroused—and the phone numbers of what must be every PML-N bigwig, including Shahbaz Sharif’s in London—check out this post on the Pakistan democracy movement website Emergency Times).

Adding to Musharraf’s woes, McClatchy reports on a letter calling on him to step down, signed by about 100 retired officers:

The letter said the officers voiced "great concern and anguish" during discussions about the "prevailing conditions" in the country.

Some of the officers had signed statements against Musharraf before, but never in such numbers.

The group, calling itself the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen's Society, said in its statement that it had determined that Musharraf must act quickly.

"He should resign his office of the president. This is in the supreme national interest and makes it incumbent on him to step down," it said.

The letter incensed Musharraf, according to the Financial Times :

“They are insignificant personalities,” the president told the Financial Times in an interview on his arrival at the Davos World Economic Forum. “Most of them are ones who served under me and I kicked them out ... They are insignificant. I am not even bothered by them.”

One of the signatories was ex-ISI chief Hameed Gul, maestro of the Afghan muj uprising against the Soviets, one of the four parties Benazir Bhutto pre-emptively accused of possible complicity in her assassination and, in sum, certainly no handwringing liberal cupcake...or “insignificant personality”.

Gul had this to say about Musharraf in an interview with Islam Online :

"Now, he should sincerely think about the country and quit in a peaceful way.

"No one is ready to trust this man or talk to him. If he is not in the scene, things will automatically be in order peacefully."

Forecast: falling temperatures with a good chance of frost in the Rawalpindi officers club.

I think the only thing that could save Musharraf—or, at least, allow him to exit the presidency gracefully and without the cloud of impeachment and indictment over his head—is an internationally and domestically recognized hung parliament i.e. a parliament without a sizable majority openly opposed to his continued rule, in which Musharraf can assert his continued political relevance by orchestrating the bloc of votes controlled by the pro-government PML-Q.

The falling away of Musharraf’s possible allies of necessity and convenience—the PML-N and the military—are perhaps the best indication that the possibility of this outcome is increasingly and dangerously remote.

Imran Khan, leader of a small opposition party, upheld his reputation as the rare voice of honesty and objectivity in Pakistan’s politics, stating that the country—and the president--both need a way out of the Musharraf cul de sac:

Mr Khan, who was briefing the media on his meetings with US lawmakers and officials on Thursday, said after his dispute with the judiciary in March, President Musharraf had taken several unfortunate steps that had blocked all exit routes for him.

“And it will be good for him and for the country, if all the parties get together and find a way out for him,” said Mr Khan.

The army is probably warming to this conclusion, given the disquieting rumbles of a color-coded revolution against Musharraf, threatened by the PPP if it doesn't get the parliamentary seats it believes its electoral standing merits.

The army’s role—and stake—in Pakistan’s affairs are way bigger than Pervez Musharraf.

At this juncture the army might sacrifice Musharraf in order to permit the PML-N—which continues to display intransigent opposition to Musharraf’s presidency but is not talking about short-circuiting the political process with people power—to enter the government prior to the parliamentary elections and delay the poll while reconstituting a non-partisan electoral commission, thereby blunting the electoral challenge of the energized and assertive PPP.

Whatever plans the army has for confronting—or accommodating-- the challenge from the opposition parties and maintaining its hegemony, they are now less likely to include Musharraf.

End of the World, Bird Flu Edition

Human bird flu cluster confirmed in China; human-to-human transmission possible

In good news for the human race, the BBC tells us a researcher at MIT has determined that avian flu will have to mutate to adapt to a particular shape of its target molecule on the surface of a respiratory cell (and not just the molecule’s chemical composition—a chemistry we already share with the chickens) in order to become pandemic in humans:

Bird flu viruses currently require cone-shaped glycans [sugar molecules—ed] to infect birds, so the umbrella shape found in humans has protected most of us from avian flu.

This suggests that for the H5N1 bird flu virus to become pandemic it must adapt so that it can latch onto the umbrella-shaped glycans of the human upper respiratory tract.

Those of us with umbrella-shaped glycans can stop worrying, I suppose.*

However, in bad news for the chicken-humanoid mutants and other cone-shaped glycanists among us, today (Jan. 25, 2008) the AP reports on the official conclusion about an apparent avian flu cluster that was reported in Nanjing in December.

It is, indeed a cluster, and human-to-human transmission, umbrella-shaped glycans be damned, looks pretty likely:

China has confirmed that a father and son who were sickened with bird flu are the country's first infections within the same family...

The 24-year-old son from the eastern city of Nanjing died Dec. 2, becoming China's 17th fatality from the H5N1 bird flu virus. His 52-year-old father began showing symptoms a day later and was confirmed to have the disease.

...More than 80 people who had come in contact with the two men were monitored, but so far there have been no other reported infections.

If the son contracted avian flu in the conventional way, infection occurred during a visit he made to a live poultry market a week before he became ill.

Not exactly a comforting thought for those of us who hoped that avian flu would be a grim fate reserved for rural poultry farmers immersed in the virus year round.

And no word on how the father got it, if not from his son.

The WHO has some reassuring words:

While the Ministry of Health in China "has not ruled out the possibility that the second case might have acquired infection from the first case, there was no evidence ... that there were any changes in the genetic sequences that make the virus more efficient in human-to-human transmission," Troedsson said.

Well, no evidence except for that dead guy and his sick father.

For those of us who enjoy world maps with menacing blotches of red on them, I've posted the WHO maps showing reported human and avian cases of H5N1 since 2003 .

*In the interests of accuracy--and acknowledging good reporting--it must be said that Reuters picked up the phone to talk to the MIT scientist, Dr. Sasisekharan, and did a better job of explaining the glycan matter than the BBC. Humans have both umbrella and cone shaped glycans. For some reason, influenza viruses that enter respiratory cells through umbrella-shaped glycans are more infectious. For now, avian flu is sticking to cone-shaped glycans.

The scientists, by the way, make no claims that the virus will be unable to mutate to adapt to umbrella-shaped glycans. They simply say that now they know what to look for in evaluating the pandemic potential of avian flu strains (and other flu viruses) that they examine.

So, I imagine they’ll be quite interested in looking at the strain from the Nanjing cluster.

WHO avian flu maps available here

Friday, January 18, 2008

Endgame for Pakistan?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Pervez Musharraf’s survival may have been greatly exaggerated.

The same goes for the opposition alliance of Bhutto's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N.

Musharraf’s government reached out to Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N, hoping to pre-empt the electoral challenge of the PPP with a government of national unity.

Now it looks like Sharif, sensing an opportunity (and weakness), is going for the throat.

But the first victim has been the united front between the PPP and the PML-N, the result that the government was probably hoping for.

Sharif, as in the past, is demanding Musharraf’s resignation.

Now he’s demanding Musharraf’s resignation as a precondition for participating in the formation of the national unity government, and the constitution of a new electoral commission to diminish the threat of massive poll rigging by the government.

From Dawn:

“Musharraf must resign and the Senate chairman should form a consensus government after consulting all the political parties. The new set-up should reconstitute the Election Commission to be headed by Justice Rana Bhagwandas. This is the solution to 95 per cent of the ailments the country is suffering from,” he said.

Sharif would appear to have boxed himself into a corner with his demand that Musharraf go as a precondition for a government of national unity.

Well, maybe not.

Sharif’s display of principled intransigence might be the prelude to some serious and less than edifying wriggling, as well as the collapse of the rickety united front negotiated between Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and even more chaos, division, and acrimony than usual in Pakistan's politics.

Pakistan’s media is abuzz with rumors that Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz—the more conciliatory member of the political partnership-- is involved in negotiations with Musharraf through a mutually trusted and respected intermediary, Brigadier General (ret) Niaz to set up a unity government, including Musharraf.

And that would involve Nawaz Sharif stepping back from his very public and vehement insistence that Musharraf step down.

Apparently the Saudis are, as always, lending a hand:

Sources said the Musharraf camp was simultaneously working on two strategies to deal with Nawaz to bring him in line. First, Nawaz was being put under pressure from the old Arab friends, who had rescued him when he was jailed in the Attock Fort. After return of Nawaz to Pakistan, these Arab sources are in a better position to convince him to show the required flexibility towards Musharraf. On a parallel track, Musharraf is using Brig Niaz, for whom the Sharif brothers have a lot of respect and admiration because of his past favours to the family.

There’s a hint that some deal will come this week, when Musharraf will be in London on an official visit—and by a coincidence Shahbaz Sharif and Brig Gen Niaz will be there too!

Pakistan’s The News apparently has a pipeline to the Sharif camp, and is providing breathless updates on Shahbaz Sharif’s doings in London:

LONDON: PML-N President Mian Shahbaz Sharif has confirmed that during his meeting with the trusted friend of President Pervez Musharraf, Brig (retd) Niaz, shortly before his arrival in Britain, both had discussed “important political matters” of Pakistan, but no secret message was delivered to him from the presidency.

In an exclusive interview with The News after his arrival in London, Shahbaz said he had visited the residence of Brig Niaz...Explaining the nature of his meeting which triggered reports that perhaps once again Brig Niaz was out to bridge the gap between his common friends, the Sharif brothers and Musharraf, Shahbaz said he had visited his house to pay a courtesy call.

There’s also more than a hint from the Sharif camp that these negotiations have received the endorsement of the UK:

LAHORE: PML-N President Mian Shahbaz Sharif is expected to hold important negotiations with senior officials and representatives of Pakistani government in London, The News has learnt.PML-N says Shahbaz is in London for his medical checkup, but sources claim he is there for something more important.

It is learnt that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband is playing a pivotal role in brokering a dialogue between the PML-N and the government for finding some common ground before the general elections....

British premier Gordon Brown is set to be a part of the whole initiative. He, and his aide, David Miliband, are busy making this political rendezvous a success. Sources believe the political aides of Musharraf government would take part in this process. The sources said President Musharraf might also engage in the dialogue aimed at evolving consensus on a national government to allay the apprehensions of all stakeholders.

As for the United States:

The US has taken a back seat after facing open criticism in and outside Pakistan over its direct involvement in supporting specific political forces and has preferred not to engage itself directly in the reconciliatory process, leaving the task to its trusted ally in Europe, the UK.

It would be very interesting—and unlikely—that the United States would be backing a PML-N deal, given President Bush’s publicly voiced doubts back in December about Nawaz Sharif’s fitness to lead Pakistan:

The president spoke cautiously about Nawaz Sharif... "I don't know him well enough," Bush said. Sharif has good relations with Pakistan's religious parties and has raised doubts about his commitment to battling the Taliban and al-Qaida. "I would be very concerned if there was any leader in Pakistan that didn't understand the nature of the world in which we live today," Bush added.

Claims of indirect U.S. support and British enthusiasm are, I think, part wishful thinking and mostly psyops by the Musharraf and the PML-N, meant to finesse the issue of Western non-support of the PML-N by implying it’s not just the PPP that has a channel to the White House and Downing Street--and access to Western diplomatic, financial, and military aid.

Nawaz Sharif is an Islamic conservative hostile to U.S. policies for the region. His patron is Saudi Arabia, not the United States, as the passage above—describing the skid-greasing efforts of the Arab states on behalf of the Musharraf-PML-N deal—implies.

For that matter, America backing the PML-N is, to me, unthinkable. It would be an egregious betrayal of the PPP, which sacrificed its leader, Benazar Bhutto, in a futile attempt to advance America’s unpopular agenda for Pakistani politics.

To give the new unity government time to prepare for the elections, Sharif is willing to postpone the elections for a couple weeks.

This seemingly minor matter opens up a sizable fissure between the PML-N and its opposition associates (allies is now probably too strong a word), the PPP.

Delayed elections are anathema to the PPP, which has been pushing for prompt elections, paradoxically despite the widespread fears of poll-rigging that the PPP itself has energetically retailed to the international media.

As reported in Dawn, PPP number one Asif Ali Zardari is quite up front about his desire for early elections to capitalize on the sympathy vote.

And his pointed repudiation of Sharif’s position on delaying the elections indicates that the honeymoon of cooperation between the PPP and the PML-N is just about over.

SUKKUR, Jan 17: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari has said the demand for formation of a national government after the announcement of the election schedule is unjustified and against ground realities and the Constitution....“People’s sympathy for the PPP has risen after the death of Benazir Bhutto and they will vote for the party on February 18,” he said. He asked party leaders and workers to prepare for the polls so that no one could dare rig it.

A quick election under the auspices of Musharraf’s government means acquiescing to a possibly rigged election, or at least one that’s tainted by aspersions of illegitimacy.

But a delayed and legitimate poll might be even worse. A delay for any reason is probably good for Nawaz Sharif and his allies, as The News points out:

It is believed that any delay in the elections, whether a national government is formed or not, will help the PML-N and other parties to absorb the PPP sympathy wave. It is also significant that Nawaz Sharif is now talking about delaying the elections, under a new election commission, at least until his APDM partners, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Imran Khan and Mahmood Khan Achakzai, who have boycotted the polls, can make their way back into the process.

Zardari and the PPP are working to manage expectations with hypotheticals implying that the PPP might win 2/3 of the seats at issue.

There might be a titanic pro-Bhutto sympathy vote out there, but if it seems more likely to me that an honest poll, timely or not, will not return a PPP majority to parliament. A plurality—and a need to build a ruling coalition excluding the hated PML-Q and the Muslim parties that the US finds objectionable—is probably the best the PPP can hope for. That would involve dealing with Nawaz Sharif and a sizable PML-N presence in parliament.

A leaderless, diminished PPP would find itself in a difficult struggle for power with Nawaz Sharif, the only opposition leader with national stature and clout.

Under these circumstances, the PPP might consider a quick, rigged election preferable to the alternative.

Benazir Bhutto had spoken openly of resorting to the tactics of the color-coded revolution —the same approach that had elevated pro-US factions to power in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan--if the election didn’t go her way:

Bhutto has said her party will participate in the election even under imperfect circumstances. But she wants to retain the ability to challenge the vote's legitimacy if it returns Musharraf's party to power.

"We have always recognized that if elections are rigged, we must be in a position, like the people of Ukraine, to protest those elections," Bhutto said. "We reserve the right to boycott, at a later stage."

That would involve challenging the poll’s fairness with the help of sympathetic Western observers, invoking people power to paralyze the current government, and installing a new regime with the promise of Western support.

If the PPP’s plan for the political endgame includes taking advantage of electoral irregularities to launch a color-coded revolution, then a calculating willingness to participate in early elections under a corrupt regime is understandable.

Such a move would be very risky--and extremely unpopular with the Pakistani military. A people power coup would be a rebuke to the army’s treasured role of political kingmaker; it’s also the kind of political division and turmoil within Pakistan’s secular society that, in my opinion, is the last thing that nation needs as it bleeds daily from suicide attacks by extremists.

Whether the PPP is simply jockeying for political advantage or willing to ignite a mass movement, it looks like its key advantage is early elections—and its key foe is perhaps not Pervez Musharraf but Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif’s willingness to break with the PPP on the issue of election timing implies that he is sure enough of his position to burn that particular bridge to his ally of convenience in the opposition.

Zardari, trying to blunt the impact of the news that the PML-N was inching toward an accommodation with Musharraf and the army, came up with a claim conveyed to the press by the usual “well-informed sources” that I find ludicrous:

ISLAMABAD: PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari has been indirectly offered to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan for a one-year interim period, heading a government of national reconciliation, but he has summarily dismissed the suggestion.

Well-informed sources have confided that some people close to the establishment approached Zardari recently and suggested that elections could be delayed for one year and a broad-based national government formed as it was the urgent need of the hour, if he agreed to become the prime minister.

PPP co-chairman was not ready to listen to anything about further delay in the elections. He snubbed the messengers and made it clear that he was not interested in any government office for the next five years and he would only look after his party.

Party insiders said he had gained more respect from his close colleagues after turning down the proposal.


In a more practical and less risible vein, Zardari pointedly promised to carry the PPP’s electoral campaign into Nawaz Sharif’s home turf of Punjab and try to recruit the local elite to the PPP banner (I assume the rather opaque references to "confidence-building measures" is an implied promise that feasting at the public trough will not be a Sindh-only affair in a PPP administration):

[Zardari] is also planning to make Lahore as his future party headquarters because he got a lot of positive response from the Punjab after his first press conference in which he made it clear the PPP would continue the politics of federation. He will soon give some responsibilities to important leaders from the Punjab, including Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, after consulting the Central Executive Committee.

Zardari is confident that the people of the Punjab will play the same role in the upcoming elections which they had played in 1970 when the PPP emerged as the single largest party in the West Pakistan with the help of the people of the Punjab. He is sure that if the establishment tolerates the majority of the PPP in the Punjab, then he will be in a position to take more confidence-building measures with regard to the powers that matter.

So, game on! between the PPP and the PML-N.

I think we can say that the alliance of convenience established by Bhutto and Sharif last year is finished and things might get pretty ugly on the hustings.

As an alternative to going toe-to-toe with the PPP on February 18 in an acrimonious, illegitimate, and destabilizing electoral dogfight, Sharif might be hoping that the army will respond to his demand by abandoning Musharraf and enabling formation of a national unity government under the PML-N's aegis that would send Sharif's party into the polls with considerable political momentum.

Indeed, according to McClatchy, the army chief of staff is cutting some overt ties between the military and Musharraf’s government.

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was named to the top military job in late November, took two steps this week. First, he barred all senior military officers from meeting directly with Musharraf without prior approval and prohibited officers from having any direct involvement in politics. Second, he recalled many army officers from civilian job assignments.

So Kiyani could be hanging Musharraf out to dry.

Alternately, however, Kiyani could simply be making cosmetic adjustments as a sop to popular opinion, while the serious work of political manipulation is left to the army intelligence services.

And, with the two main opposition parties clearly bickering among themselves (thanks in no little part to the judiciously spread rumors concerning a government/PML-N deal that excludes the PPP) and the prospect for a political stalemate increasing , pressures to throw Musharraf to the wolves are probably decreasing.

There’s a second scenario that might explain Sharif’s ostentatious aggressiveness. He might simply be playing a game in collusion with Musharraf that could go like this:

  • Sharif refuses to enter the government while Musharraf stays in;

  • Musharraf doesn’t budge, calls for a unity government go nowhere, the PML-N stays out of the government, and Sharif retains his credibility as an opposition leader;

  • delayed elections—and/or some more subtle than usual vote rigging--benefits the PML-N at the PPP’s expense;

  • the parliamentary election anoints Sharif and not Zardari as the power broker in the new government;

  • the Sharif brothers run the political show with the army’s endorsement;

  • here’s a second, more dispassionate look at the outrages Musharraf perpetrated on the judiciary and the constitution in order win his second term;

  • things are put right in a non-vindictive spirit of national reconciliation;

  • to everyone’s relief—including his own—Musharraf slides safely into retirement;

  • and Sharif is left alone on top of the heap.

Is there a Deal 2.0 in the works between Musharraf and the opposition, this time with the PML-N standing in for the PPP?

We might know as soon as next week, after Musharraf completes his visit to the U.K.

Monday, January 14, 2008

North Korean Supernote Counterfeiting R.I.P.

Over at McClatchy, Kevin Hall provides what promises to be the final word on the allegations of North Korean counterfeiting promoted by hardliners within the Bush administration.

...evidence to support Bush's charges against North Korea is uncertain at best and that the claims of the North Korean defectors cited in news accounts are dubious and perhaps bogus.

Hall delves into the interesting and, for me, new issue of the administration’s cooperation with friendly and perhaps overly obliging elements inside the South Korean intelligence and/or policy and/or emigre community to use defectors and their possibly tall tales to advance the story:

Many of the administration's public allegations about North Korean counterfeiting trace to North Korea "experts" in South Korea who arranged interviews with North Korean defectors for U.S. and foreign newspapers. The resulting news reports were quoted by members of Congress, researchers and Bush administration officials who were seeking to pressure North Korea.

The defectors' accounts, for example, were cited prominently in a lengthy July 23, 2006, New York Times magazine story that charged North Korea with producing the sophisticated supernotes.

The McClatchy investigation, however, found reason to question those sources. One major source for several stories, a self-described chemist named Kim Dong-shik, has gone into hiding, and a former roommate, Moon Kook-han, said Kim is a liar out for cash who knew so little about American currency that he didn't know whose image is printed on the $100 bill. (It's Benjamin Franklin.)

When the definitive history of Bush administration shenanigans is written (I know, probably never) there will be a big chapter on the regime change ideologues’ creation of an international fraternity of ethically challenged spooks and wannabes who served up incendiary but dodgy intelligence...dossiers that could be stovepiped to the policy level without the inconvenience of skeptical vetting or evidentiary nitpicking by the experts at the CIA and State Department.

David Asher, the sharp end of the stick for allegations against North Korea, is still keeping the flag flying, albeit rather circumspectly:

David Asher, who was the coordinator of a working group at the State Department that collected details on North Korean criminal activities, said his group turned up evidence of the counterfeiting and didn't rely on "intelligence" to make its case.

Asher, now a researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy organization, declined to provide any details.

I guess it depends on what your definition of evidence—or “intelligence”—is.

As for John Bolton, the moustachio’d menace whose relentless regime-change machinations gave Kim Jung Il so much heartburn, he seems to be in Fuhgedaboutit mode:

John Bolton, the former Bush administration official most identified with a hard line on North Korea, told McClatchy that he never saw hard evidence that the North Korean government was making the supernotes.

As far as the Bush administration is considered, there is no more reliable means of coverup than failure.

When a policy craters, as the hardline North Korean policy assuredly did, people don't even remember the policy itself, let alone its shaky factual and logical underpinnings.

Hopefully, we won’t forget about this particularly disastrous, ill-conceived, and dishonest foray into foreign policy chicanery.

And we can start by reading Kevin Hall. His most recent article, previous pieces, and a raft of supporting documentation can be found here .

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.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


America's Delusional Policy Pushes Pakistan Toward Catastrophe

How’s that U.S. plan to stabilize Pakistan working out?

Not too great.

And not all the troublemakers are inside Pakistan.

In fact, a lot of them are right here in the U.S.A.

It's not just Islamist extremists who see U.S. meddling as the source of Pakistan’s problems.

Liberal, secular opinion inside Pakistan increasingly sees U.S. interference in Pakistan’s politics on behalf of military rule and in pursuit of its own misguided and dangerous security priorities as the root cause of that country’s miserable political instability.

Recent events make it easy to see why.

Acting on their unofficial motto “Where there’s death there’s hope”, the currently sidelined enthusiasts for military action constellated around Dick Cheney are doing their best to take advantage of the unrest in Pakistan triggered by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination—and the resultant disarray in the State Department—to push their own plans to broaden the hot war on terror with a third front in West Pakistan.

From the New York Times: the White House and the Pentagon, officials see an opportunity in the changing power structure for the Americans to advocate for the expanded authority in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country. “After years of focusing on Afghanistan, we think the extremists now see a chance for the big prize — creating chaos in Pakistan itself,” one senior official said.

Aah. The sweet smell of chaos...and opportunity.

The new options for expanded covert operations include loosening restrictions on the C.I.A. to strike selected targets in Pakistan, in some cases using intelligence provided by Pakistani sources...

... if the C.I.A. were given broader authority, it could call for help from the military or deputize some forces of the Special Operations Command to act under the authority of the agency.

And, in a series of nice hmmm-inducing asides:

Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a number of President Bush’s top national security advisers met Friday at the White House to discuss the proposal...

The meeting on Friday, which was not publicly announced, included Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and top intelligence officials...

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was on vacation last week and did not attend the White House meeting...


It doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to guess that Condoleezza Rice doesn’t like this plan, since unleashing the CIA and Special Ops to slaughter and abduct suspected terrorists in the border areas in unilateral paramilitary operations would be wildly unpopular within Pakistan, accelerate Musharraf’s political collapse, and contribute mightily to the deadly instability she would like to avert.

Although Secretary Rice was forced to take the meeting bereft of reinforcement from her most effective realist ally, Robert Gates, she has thankfully taken steps to spike the initiative through the press.

Rice’s minions leaked the news of the meeting to the New York Times, and the article concludes with a plethora of, to my mind, completely accurate predictions of disaster from two on-the-record think tankers and that ubiquitous but circumspect presence, Mr. Officials Say:

[O]fficials say, some American diplomats and military officials, as well as outside experts, argue that American-led military operations on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan could result in a tremendous backlash and ultimately do more harm than good. That is particularly true, they say, if Americans were captured or killed in the territory.

For good measure, the Pakistanis don’t like the idea either.

Here’s what Dawn, Pakistan’s major English-language media outlet, had to say in an editorial:

AMERICAN threats to intervene in Pakistan militarily have become a routine affair. This time, however, the threat ...has evoked the usual response by the Foreign Office spokesman. Islamabad, he said, would not allow America to intervene militarily in Pakistan, because fighting terrorism in Fata and elsewhere was the government’s responsibility. One does not know who to pick up first for some plain speaking. The naivety being show by the Bush administration is amazing.

The second absurdity is the Bush administration’s belief that it knows something about guerilla war. Actually, going by the mess they have created in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush aides are the last people on earth to claim anti-insurgency expertise.

So far so good.

And, if Secretary Rice can steer President Bush’s force-infatuated and success-averse attention away from this plan, Pakistan will be better off.

However, it looks like we can’t expect anything good to come out of Secretary Rice’s shop either.

Having announced in oblivious “it’s not a bug it’s a feature” style that we have no Plan B for Pakistan, the State Department has redoubled its efforts to push through the elections and the coalition between Bhutto’s PPP and Musharraf’s creatures in Pakistan’s parliament, the PML-Q.

This unavoidably means trashing Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N, the only opposition politician with national organizational reach and stature after Bhutto’s death.

Because Nawaz Sharif might be good for Pakistan, but he’s not good for the U.S. State Department.

If the PML-N and the PPP, who will probably both do well—but not too well—in the elections, went ahead and formed a ruling coalition, parliament could push for sanctions of every conceivable kind against Musharraf, such as invalidating his blatantly illegal presidency...

...and undoubtedly cleave to Sharif’s popular anti-American and cautious line in dealing with Pakistan’s Islamicist/Taliban/al Qaeda problem.

That means that the U.S. takeaway from Pakistan be zero in terms of shoring up the eastern front against the Taleban resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas...

...and less than zero if one factors in the inadvertent political destruction of Musharraf, the wayward U.S. client we meant to rescue...

...not to mention the slaughter of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s most prominent pro-Western politician...

...and the descent of Pakistan into political crisis and, in some areas, near anarchy.

Not the kind of legacy-building Secretary Rice was looking for in the last year of her dismal term at State.

So we are left with a policy of support for the PPP + Musharraf that is, clinically speaking, insane.

Let me count the ways.

First, the U.S. is openly committing to keeping Musharraf in power. We are allying with the most despised political force in Pakistan.

Second, U.S. patronage is distorting the political activities of the PPP—to its and our detriment.

Unconditional support of the PPP brings with it unconditional support for Benazir Bhutto’s creepy widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

For those accustomed to patronizing him with the insulting nickname Mr. 10%,: Hey, it’s Mr. 30% to you!

[Zardari] acquired the less-than-flattering nickname 'Mr 10 Per Cent' -- a reference to the cut he took for approving government contracts. That government was dismissed for corruption by the president, but Benazir was returned to power in 1993. Her second stint in office proved no different, however -- except that Zardari's nickname was 'Mr 30 Per Cent'.

It remains to be seen at what percentage a Zardari government would finally max out at, given the immense amount of patronage he would need to dispense to keep his unpopular presence on top of the PPP.

With Bhutto gone, the PPP has lost its transcendent image-management resource and the party is increasingly portrayed in the Western press as the feudal plaything of a corrupt and vindictive operator who bungees his son in to front the party for brief English-language press availabilities before popping him back to Oxford and blissful obscurity.

Here’s the lede from the current Time cover story on Pakistan:

As the new self-appointed standard bearers of Pakistani democracy, Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari don't inspire much confidence. One is a feudal aristocrat widely reviled as corrupt and blamed for his wife's undoing when she was the country's Prime Minister in the 1990s. The other, their son, is a bookish Oxford undergraduate who talks of democracy but whose political clout derives entirely from his middle name. Yet there they were, three days after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, their beloved wife and mother, proclaiming themselves inheritors of her political fief, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and assuring Pakistan that they were the answer to all its problems.


Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s most recent press conference informed the world that the elder Zardari has decided to pursue the Hariri option—pushing for a U.N. investigation of Bhutto’s assassination.

Giving the U.N. Security Council—and U.S. and Great Britain—carte blanche to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs might provide Zardari with another valuable political weapon in his struggle with Musharraf, but Pakistanis will resent a measure that would undoubtedly undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty and political stability.

Zardari is desperate for quick elections, despite the horrific violence that gripped Pakistan since the assassination. I assume he knows that as time passes the image of Benazir Bhutto will fade from the public mind, to be replaced with awareness of the dubious and flawed legacy she left behind.

The PPP—and Pakistan—could have used a period of reflection and restructuring, which they aren’t going to get, given Zadari’s need to wave the bloody shirt and U.S. haste to push the PPP—Musharraf deal down people’s throats asap.

Third, Sharif is one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan. Even if he can’t win significant support from PPP voters after Bhutto’s demise, he’s probably the single most well-known—and one of the more trusted—political figures in Pakistan. So by allying with Musharraf and spurning Sharif, the U.S. is allying with the least popular national figure in Pakistan in opposition to the most popular.

Fourth, we are once again selling out Pakistan’s genuine democracy movement—the activists of the judiciary and legal profession who have been trying to get Pakistan to live up to the democratic promises of its constitution—by pushing our backroom deal instead of supporting a return to constitutional rule. This gives the anti-Musharraf bourgeoisie yet another reason to hate us.

Fifth, we are pushing the military strongman—anti Taliban/anti terrorist regional security model on Pakistan that nobody likes.

That includes the army, of course.

Benazir Bhutto herself would probably have been incapable of getting the Pakistan military to abandon the comfortable strategic posture of standing as Pakistan’s modern, well-armed, and prestigious national bulwark against India in favor the dangerous and dirty work of pursuing its ex-clients and enemies through the mud villages of western Pakistan more than it’s already doing.

No chance for the disorganized and opportunistic no-names who would be staffing a PML-Q/PPP administration.

No chance they’d try, given the intense public opposition to U.S. security policy inside Pakistan.

Increasingly, Pakistani opinion sees the dysfunctional dynamic of a military strongman propped up by the U.S. and permitted to trample on the constitution so he can pursue the U.S. aim of chasing terrorists as the thing that is destroying Pakistan.

The U.S. global war on terror only enjoys 15% support in Pakistan, according to the International Republican Institute.

U.S. security policy—and not Islamist extremism—is seen as doing the greatest damage to Pakistan’s civil society.

I’d like to stress that a little bit.

As Kevin Drum pointed out, in a November poll by the University of Maryland’s Program of International Policy Attitudes, Pakistanis were asked to characterize threats to Pakistan’s national interests in the next 10 years.

The largest number characterized the U.S. military presence in Asia a critical threat.

How many people? 72%

What’s the next biggest threat?

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, characterized by 68% of resondents as a critical threat.

Those are big numbers. Really big numbers.

Especially since we're actually allies with Pakistan. We're not supposed to be a threat.

Even Pakistan's enemies are seen as less of a threat than us.

The Indian threat—that old standby of Pakistani security policy, politics, and military rule—clocked in third at 53%.

(Since I write a China blog, I should point out that rising China came in at the bottom of the list, viewed as a critical threat by only 10% of respondents.)

As for the areas that interest us the most:

Al Qaeda clocked in as a critical threat to a respectable but distant 4th for 41% of the respondents.

The local Taliban: 34%.

Islamist movements are definitely a problem, but here’s something to chew on from the poll results:

Asked about the "cooperation in the last few years between Pakistan and the US on military and security matters”, only one in four (27%) said that it had brought any benefits to akistan...Nearly one-third said US-Pakistani cooperation had actually hurt Pakistan...

Supporters of all leaders were united in their distrust of the United States and its motives. Majorities of all said they did not trust the United States to act responsibly in the world, including 68% of Sharif supporters, 65% of Bhutto supporters, and 55% of Musharraf supporters.[emph. added].

And those are the people we think support us.

As for allowing U.S. or foreign troops to capture al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan?

5% approved.

We're not just pushing an unpopular client. We're an unpopular patron. And we're pushing very unpopular policies, seemingly without regard for the facts on the ground or the interests of our "ally".

In other words, in the name of stabilizing Pakistan and shoring up support for Musharraf, we are pretty much guaranteeing that Musharraf will be less popular—and Pakistan’s government less stable—than before our failed injection of Bhutto into Pakistani politics threw that nation into disarray.

I assume the geniuses of Foggy Bottom—and the Office of the Vice President--are well aware of these numbers and the bleak situation.

Maybe State is pushing the doomed PPP—Musharraf alliance because we know that only a regime of weak and unpopular clients reliant on American aid will keep the threat of a populist, united, anti-American and Taleban friendly regime at bay, at least until the Bush administration is out of office.

Maybe that same vision of a helpless, discredited pro-US regime in Islamabad convinced Cheney’s people that the time was ripe to discard the dream of stabilizing a friendly Pakistan for the thrill of kindling America’s third Eurasian land war in the mountains and valleys of West Pakistan.

I looked at the recent Time cover and actually had to laugh.

It’s a classic piece of what I call “muscular handwringing”—the unwillingness to understand that the bizarre problems that the World's Only Superpower can't seem to solve are not arising out of mysterious local conditions, the political and/or moral perversity of the subject population, or our client’s inexplicable political dysfunction.

The cover story is entitled:

No One Could Save Benazir Bhutto. Why We Need To Save Pakistan

It's too disturbing and inconvenient to realize that the source of the mess can be discovered by looking in a mirror.

In Pakistan, we are dealing with the inevitable consequences of our own failed policies.

Actually, the best way to save Pakistan is for us to leave it alone.

That might have saved Benazir Bhutto, too