Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pashtun Second Front or Pakistani Sideshow?

Barnett Rubin has a very detailed and knowledgeable account of Pashtun politics and their implications for both Pakistan and Afghanistan at Informed Comment: Global Affairs .

However, when I look at his prescriptions for expanding the battle against the Taleban in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), I think of escalating a conflict inside a nation unequipped to endure it.

In fact, the historical analogy that comes to mind is Cambodia, the “sideshow” that was supposed to secure our vulnerable client regime in Saigon by denying the North Vietnamese army its havens in Cambodia, but ended up shattering that vulnerable nation and its democratic institutions instead.

The Pashtun ethnic area is split between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pashtun areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) provide a haven for Taleban and al Qaeda extremists subverting the pro-Western government of Afghanistan.

I hope I am not oversimplifying Dr. Rubin’s argument by summarizing it as follows:

The rout of the Islamicist parties in the NWFP by the moderate, secular, and inclusive Awami National Party (ANP) on February 18 offers Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States a unique opportunity to cultivate a new focus for Pashtun aspirations, thereby denying the Taleban and al Qaeda their haven in western Pakistan and repudiating their pretensions to speaking on behalf of the Pashtuns in Afghani affairs.

Along the way, Rubin makes a good point of criticizing the mixture of disdain, fear, and opportunism that outside powers have used to objectify the Pashtun to their own benefit.

The Pakistani army and government have been perhaps the worst offenders in this regard, painting the Pashtun as violent and ungovernable, thereby acquiring plausible deniability for their proxy wars and tribal policies, while fostering and rewarding the extremist Pashtun factions that make “violent, ungovernable Pashtuns” a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The key element, in Rubin’s eyes, is getting newly democratic Pakistan and a newly responsible army to stop inciting violent and extremist Pashtun factions in the pursuit of shortsighted and amoral goals in Afghanistan.

By this reading, denied a logistical and ideological haven in NWFP and harried by the NATO forces supporting the Afghan government, there’s a chance that the Taleban will be neutralized and the Karzai regime can bring the benefits of secular, pro-Western democratic rule to all of Afghanistan.

My view of the situation is contrarian and darker.

I should add that it’s also much less expert than Dr. Rubin’s. So it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

I’ve argued previously that the key to the Pashtun situation lies not in victory through Pakistan, but defeat in Afghanistan.

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 reaction of the Taleban to its encirclement by the forces of democracy and reason will be to expand its campaign of terror in Pakistan both inside the NWFP and beyond to the economic and political heartland of Punjab and Sindh.

Indeed, there have been successive waves of violence inside Pakistan in the last twelve months—including yesterday’s assassination of the Pakistani army’s surgeon general in Rawalpindi—that by their ebb and flow appear to me to be demonstrations by extremists to Pakistan’s elite of the high costs of confrontation versus the benefits of accommodation.

The Pakistan army, compromised by its previous support of the extremists and loathe to surrender the leverage the existence of these extremist groups have given it, will be tempted to cut a deal to go easy on the militants in return for peace inside Pakistan.

Since fondness for Afghanistan is not at the top of the list for Pakistani politicians and there does not appear to be anyone inside Pakistan willing to die for Hamid Karzai, this is a deal that Pakistani popular opinion would live with.

Then it will be up to the United States to take the politically awkward step of taking the battle to the militants inside the NWFP.

Even if the U.S. armed forces conduct their operations inside Pakistan with less than their usual ham-fistedness, the gains of the megamillions of hearts-and-minds projects the US is prepared to fund in the frontier will be offset and the ANP will be compromised and weakened as a respected nationalist force.

With the Taleban entrenched in southeast Afghanistan and western Pakistan, it’s going to take more than ANP good intentions and Pakistani lip service to uproot it from the NWFP.

It would take something like a white terror.

And as long as the beneficiary such an immense and bloody effort is seen as the Karzai regime in Afghanistan and its Western backers—and only secondarily and at remote remove Pakistan’s national polity—it’s going to find little support even among Pakistan’s more enlightened citizens.

That’s why, paradoxically, the deradicalizing the Pashtun areas of south Asia might require a Taleban victory in Kabul.

Then Pakistan’s policy for the Northwest Frontier Province could be decoupled from its preoccupation with promoting a favorable geopolitical alignment in Afghanistan, and inside the NWFP the ANP would be spared the headache of reconciling its political aims for the Pashtuns with support for a U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.

And the issue of subduing extremism in the borderlands would no longer be confounded by the need to maintain at America’s insistence (and in return for a subsidy so large it threatens to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty) the NATO supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan that keeps the Afghan war bubbling.

For an interesting insight into the ramifications of the Afghan war in Pakistani politics, read this article in Dawn describing what it perceives as American attempts to influence formation of the ruling coalition (that will determine Musharraf’s fate) by revising the terms of U.S. financial assistance—about $1 billion of which has, over the last five years, directly underwritten the budget deficit of the Musharraf government on a no questions asked basis:

The sources did not agree to a notion that the US administration was withdrawing direct budgetary financing to Pakistan’s new government – a facility that has been available to military-led government all these years. They said it had more to do with the pressure the Bush administration faced due to accountability concerns expressed by the Democrats.

Oooh, those Democrats.

Actually, oooh those Musharraf supporters fighting a rear guard action to preserve his political clout.

They obviously leaked this story to Dawn to indicate that Washington does not trust the PPP’s Asif Zardari a.k.a. Mr. 10% or Nawaz Sharif to handle America’s vital ocean of cash responsibly and honestly (there has been a minor boomlet of articles and posts positing, to my mind ludicrously, that Musharraf—the one of the most distrusted and despised people in Pakistan—should be kept in the presidency as the United States desires, so he can protect the Pakistani people by thwarting the kleptocratic tendencies of Pakistan’s new political leaders).

No matter which interpretation one chooses, the corrupting and complicating factor of U.S. aid on Pakistani politics (and public opinion) is incontrovertible.

Neither can it be denied that the Afghan war—which creates an unhealthy dependency on U.S. cash and enlarges the anti-democratic national role of the Pakistan military as well as destabilizing the country through terrorism and ethnic and confessional division—is an unwelcome distraction in Pakistan’s politics.

Trying to work through all these issues without destroying Pakistani national unity and democracy for the sake of effective anti-Taleban operations in western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan may be too much to ask.

If, on the other hand, the Taleban triumph in Afghanistan and the U.S. throws in the towel, Pakistani politics become a lot simpler.

Then Pakistan’s civilian government might be able to get its political and military house in order, wean the army from its lazy and immoral reliance on extremist proxies in the Pashtun areas, and concentrate its efforts on providing political and economic justice for the NWFP and fully integrating it into Pakistan through the ANP.

Then the NWFP under the ANP would be a strong and useful bulwark against the Taleban in Afghanistan.

But that would require a level of hope, patience, and sacrifice from the people of Afghanistan—and a degree of honesty and enlightened self-interest by Pakistan’s military and political leaders--that may be unattainable and, indeed, would be unreasonable to expect.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pakistan Politics: Zardari Deals While Washington Fumes

Pakistan’s two main opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, have agreed to form a coalition government.

The fate of the judiciary and Musharraf have not been clearly addressed, so it’s not clear if this is a lasting coalition or a superficial and tactical alliance.

But simply the fact that Asif Zardari and the PPP have announced a coalition with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N—an arrangement that is wildly popular within Pakistan but is detested by the United States—is a sign that the PPP has slipped the leash from the United States and our desperate plan to ensure Pervez Musharraf’s survival as president of Pakistan through an alliance with the PPP is about to come to naught.

Asif Zardari might well be turning his back on the bargain Washington made with Benazir Bhutto—our backing in return for her promise to enter a coalition with Musharraf —that brought his wife back to Pakistan and vaulted him to political power.

Maybe Zardari decided to screw Washington instead of Pakistan.

If so, good for him!

No doubt the Bush administration is angrily muttering Sellout! under its breath and envisioning a cavalcade of political catastrophes in the train of the coalition with the PML-N, starting with support of the lawyers’ movement and ending with the resignation of Musharraf.

Hardliners in the White House are probably also muttering Heckuva job, Zalmay! to U.N. Ambassador Khalilzad and the collection of geopolitical geniuses in the State Department who thought that returning Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan would strengthen Musharraf.

According to The News :

Nawaz Sharif maintained that there is no difference in the two parties on the restoration of the deposed judges.“We accept the mandate of PPP with an open heart and wish that PPP complete its five year term,” he said, adding, “struggle for restoration of judiciary will continue and CoD [Charter of Democracy] will also be followed.”

PPP Co-Chairman, Asif Zardari said PPP and PML-N have decided to work together for democracy. However, he said, some of the matter are yet to be decided by the parties.

It would surprise me if the PML-N continues in the coalition if Musharraf remains in the presidency and the pre-November 3 judiciary is not restored, especially in the light of news reports like this :

Mr Sharif informed the CWC [PML-N Central Working Committee] and newly-elected MNAs [Members of the National Assembly] that reinstatement of judges of superior courts was a cornerstone of the party’s policy and there would be no compromise on the issue.

... the party had adopted a unanimous resolution, asking President Gen (retd) Pervez Mushararf to step down. The resolution said that President Musharraf had himself announced that he would resign from the office if his popularity went down. He said the party believed that after the Feb 18 elections, it was time for President Musharraf to quit because that was also in the best interest of the nation.

As I previously argued, Sharif’s positions on the judges and Musharraf don’t stem from his desire for revenge against Musharraf, as the Western media sometimes lazily assumes.

Championing democracy, independence of the judiciary, and civilian rule are the cornerstones of Sharif’s efforts to recreate the PML-N as a national electoral powerhouse rivaling the PPP by focusing on issues that resonate with Pakistan’s educated , affluent, and influential classes nationwide.

Sharif is unlikely to squander the considerable political capital he has accumulated over the last three months—and led to the PML-N’s impressive showing in the February 18 elections—by abandoning his demands that the judiciary be restored and Musharraf go.

Especially since the lawyers’ movement, emboldened by the elections, are loudly demanding restoration of the deposed Supreme Court justices and promising to intensify their activities if the purportedly pro-law and pro-democracy parties threaten to cave to Musharraf’s blandishments and U.S. pressure on the issue.

Somebody smuggled a cell phone to deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (he’s still under house arrest) and he used it for a remote address to a chanting crowd of lawyers from Dawn) :

“The Constitution was amended and emergency was imposed to perpetuate the one-man rule and no subsequent measure could validate them. History would not forgive us if we do not restore the rule of law,” he warned.

Speaking on the occasion, SHCBA president Rasheed A. Razvi said the lawyers would continue their struggle irrespective of any support extended by political parties. He said no political party was in the field when they had started the campaign on March 9, 2007. A majority of parties and, in fact, the entire civil society gathered behind them in due course because they (the lawyers) were fighting for a worthy cause.[emph. added]

Note, by the way, the complete absence of deference to the PPP and the PML-N.

The lawyers started the protest movement against Musharraf early in 2007 and the opposition parties jumped on the bandwagon in order to make political hay going into the elections.

The lawyers’ movement is a constituency that Zardari and Sharif can’t control and, if they don’t support demands to reinstate the judiciary, they can’t accommodate it.

And once the pre-November 3 judiciary is restored, then Musharraf’s continued participation in Pakistan’s political life becomes basically untenable.

Not just because the reconstituted Supreme Court would undoubtedly rule favorably and with alacrity on the lawsuit challenging the validity of Musharraf’s election to the presidency—the threat that Musharraf tried to pre-empt with his imposition of the State of Emergency in the first place--and effect his political demise within a short period of time.

The risks for Musharraf go beyond losing the presidency.

Musharraf’s actions since November 3 are an absolute mare’s nest of illegality and contradiction (a radio interview with Ali Ahsan, son of the leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, provides an excellent overview of the background and significance of the lawyers’ movement in Pakistani politics).

Musharraf declared a State of Emergency not only to avoid invalidation by the Supreme Court of his election as president. He tried to make his legal position unassailable by a series of hasty, ill-conceived, and clumsily executed constitutional and legal maneuvers.

He removed the justices, detained them—they are still under house arrest—and installed a new slate of justices, some of them eager hacks and some apparently recruited under duress by the intelligence services, without any confirmation process and had them swear an ad hoc oath promising not to challenge his rule or his actions taken under the State of Emergency.

Then the faux Supreme Court obligingly dismissed the case challenging his election without a hearing and validated Musharraf’s presidency.

For good measure, Musharraf then exploited the extra-legal latitude he had extracted from the new court to amend the constitution, removing the right to declare martial law from the army and giving it to the president.

So the lawyers’ movement is not just a matter of giving the real Supreme Court justices their jobs back and then maybe negotiating some national unity deal that lets Musharraf keep the presidency.

Once the restored Supreme Court starts rolling, it will inevitably want to go beyond the election ruling and unwind a set of unconstitutional declarations and actions that corrupted the independence of the judiciary and placed excessive and dangerous powers into the hands of the president.

That would place Musharraf in legal jeopardy beyond simply the loss of his office.

We’re talking criminal charges, possible impeachment, or at the very least a series of negotiations on immunity/amnesty and what kind of governmental role and functions are still permissible for such a profoundly compromised, unpopular, and distrusted president.

It is difficult to see why anyone would want to go through this traumatic and dangerous process (despite his two months’ experience in civilian life, Musharraf is an army man and has stocked the upper ranks with his creatures), driven by an angered and empowered lawyers’ movement, instead of making joint cause among the political parties to remove Musharraf asap and with a minimum of fuss.

Defying the lawyers and keeping in place Musharraf while trying to deal with the extra-legal incubus created by the State of Emergency at the heart of Pakistan’s government is an excessively high price for the PPP to pay for coddling Musharraf or appeasing the United States.

Especially since the lawyers have announced their plans for mass marches and rallies starting March 7 demanding the restoration of the judiciary.

I don’t think that the PPP wants to start its new and improved democratic administration by showcasing the Pakistani contribution to the lexicon of non-lethal force—the laathi charge—to club lawyers in the main square in Islamabad.

Therefore, I think Asif Zardari decided to let the PML-N into the coalition on Sharif’s terms—i.e. by accepting, at least for now, the PML-N’s uncompromising stance on the judges and, by extension, the removal of Musharraf.

In other words, instead of holding firm on the issue of Musharraf’s survival—the thing that apparently still matters most to the United States--Zardari blinked.

A more charitable and accurate interpretation of events is that Zardari is trying to bend U.S. support to Pakistani political realities.

Maybe he’ll even try to persuade Washington to abandon its support of Musharraf.

That’s perhaps the assurance he gave to Sharif in order to bring the PML-N into the coalition.

Jim Lobe has written an article on the the newly vocal and growing Mush Must Go chorus in the U.S. foreign policy sphere.

For the first time, that chorus includes the PPP.

Lobe reported that Hussein Haqqani, the PPP’s flack-in-residence at Boston University, its spokesman to Capitol Hill, and designated quotemeister to the U.S. media, unveiled the current party position in the Wall Street Journal:

The newspaper also published a column by Hussein Haqqani - an adviser to the late PPP leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - demanding that Musharraf "work out an honorable exit or a workable compromise with the opposition."

That, to me, is a clear sign that the PPP wants to abandon its promise to work with Musharraf and call for his ouster instead--even if Asif Zardari is still cautiously hesitating to make an overt demand inside Pakistan for Musharraf to stand down.

The PPP wants to swim with the political tide in Pakistan instead of bending to pressure from Washington.

So it has rejected Washington’s Three No policy—no reform of the judiciary, no resignation of Musharraf, and no alliance with the PML-N.

And now it's that close to being all over for Musharraf and the United States, and the curtain will ring down on America's disastrous foray into Pakistani politics.

The News reported:

ISLAMABAD: The United States has now decided to respect the wishes of Pakistani voters and has finally given a go-ahead to the two main winners to resolve all the issues according to the wishes of their voters, including the issue of the deposed Supreme Court judges. US diplomats, who met some top leaders of PPP and PML-N in the last two days, have conveyed the view that the restoration of the deposed judges was an internal issue of Pakistan and the US would not interfere in any internal political or legal issue. ...

Observers said it was clear that the Zardari-Nawaz alliance announced on Thursday night had forced the US to change its position on supporting Musharraf, who had announced a few days ago that restoration of the judges was not possible.

The last line of the article gives an idea of what Nawaz Sharif brings to the coalition, and who the geopolitical winner might be here. Hint: it's not the United States:

Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari will soon meet again and discuss about a joint meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. They will request Saudi Arabia to help in stabilising the oil prices for two to three years so that the new elected government could have some relief.

image of police officers with laathi sticks from http://pakistaniat.com/
image of laathi charge from http://www.paktribune.com/

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pakistan 2008 Equals Iran 1978?

The Bush administration is pushing Pakistan into a corner.

It’s not a happy place.
It’s called Musharraf = Shah of Iran territory.

And it really doesn’t have to be that way.

After all, the opposition to Musharraf comes from respectable, clean-shaven democratic, dollar-worshiping moderates, not the bearded religious fanatics of our dark fantasies.

On Tuesday, I wrote oooh so presciently:

The deep thinkers of the State Department could look at the election results, decide that we did our honorable best by Musharraf, our loyal but terminally inept strongman, and give our backing to his peaceful departure.

The PPP would be spared the suicidal role of appearing as Musharraf’s protector, and be able to form a governing coalition with the PML-N in a subordinate position inside the government, instead of throwing rocks at it from the outside.

The U.S. has always abhorred a situation in which the PPP and the PML-N formed a coalition.

Washington fears that a PPP coalition under the influence of the PML-N would...adopt policies popular with the Pakistani people i.e. decouple from the U.S. war on the Taleban and al Qaeda just at the time that the prospect of losing Afghanistan has started giving U.S. policymakers some serious heartburn.

[But] No matter who’s in power, we’re not going to unearth some miracle race of Pakistani crusaders ready to kill their own Muslim citizens so NATO can destroy Pakistan’s natural Pashtun allies in Afghanistan.

Better to settle for a popular, stable PPP/PML-N government in Pakistan without Musharraf but with Kiyani (the new, improved army strongman) and hope that all that money we’re throwing at Pakistan buys us some grudgingly-acknowledged leverage for anti-extremist initiatives that suit both U.S. policy and the Pakistani national mood.

Of course, accepting half a loaf is not really what the Bush administration is about. Its usual response to a setback is to blame it on a deficiency of will and vigor, and double down when the facts on the ground are screaming Change Course! instead.

So we’ll see whether Washington casts its vote in favor of the PPP+Musharraf, continued division and drift in Pakistani politics and security doctrine, and eventual dominance by Nawaz Sharif and a PML-N grown more overtly anti-American.

According to Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of McClatchy, the returns are trickling in from Washington, and it doesn’t look promising:

The U.S. is urging the Pakistani political leaders who won the elections to form a new government quickly and not press to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf ousted last year, Western diplomats and U.S. officials said Wednesday. If reinstated, the jurists likely would try to remove Musharraf from office.

Representing the despised minority from the state of sanity is, as usual, the State Department:

Bush's policy of hanging on to Musharraf has caused friction between the White House and the State Department, with some career diplomats and other specialists arguing that the administration is trying to buck the political tides in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.

Officials in the White House and the intelligence community fear that the longer Pakistan remains without a new government, the deeper the gridlock, threatening the progress made in the elections toward greater stability and helping the country's Islamic extremists.

One Western diplomat said, however, that the strategy could backfire if Pakistanis feel betrayed after voting to kick Musharraf from office.

"This is dangerous," said the diplomat.

The officials spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss internal government debates.

The effort to persuade Pakistan's newly elected parliament not to reinstate the judges could be perceived in Pakistan as a U.S. attempt to keep Musharraf in power after voters overwhelmingly rejected his Pakistan Muslim League-Q political party.

"There is going to be an uprising against the people who were elected" should opposition parties agree to the plan, warned Athar Minallah, the lawyer of ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom Musharraf has under house arrest.

Frikkin' diplomats. Frikkin' specialists. Frikkin' lawyers. Frikkin' voters. Frikkin' people who love their country, democracy, and the rule of law.

How are we supposed to get anything done over there with all these troublemakers?

In a separate post, Pakistan: It’s Not Over Yet, I write on the impending political crisis, both between the PPP and the PML-N and inside the PPP itself, provoked by the U.S. insistence on working with Musharraf.

Pakistan: It’s Not Over Yet

Update to the Update:

I see from Jim Lobe that Hussein Haqqani, the PPP’s flack-in-residence at Boston University, its spokesman to Capitol Hill, and designated quotemeister to the U.S. media, unveiled the current party position in the Wall Street Journal:

The newspaper also published a column by Hussein Haqqani - an adviser to the late PPP leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - demanding that Musharraf "work out an honorable exit or a workable compromise with the opposition."

That, to me, is a sign that the PPP wants to abandon its promise to work with Musharraf and accommodate the PML-N by calling for his ouster instead, even if Haqqan and Zardari are cautiously hesitating to make an categorical demand for Musharraf to stand down while the Bush administration is still committed to supporting Musharraf.

The PPP wants to swim with the political tide in Pakistan instead of bending to pressure from Washington.

So it is moving to reject Washington’s Three No policy—no reform of the judiciary, no resignation of Musharraf, and no alliance with the PML-N.

And Asif Zardari wants to turn his back on the bargain Washington made with Benazir Bhutto—our backing in return for her promise to enter a coalition with Musharraf —that brought his wife back to Pakistan and vaulted him to political power.

So it looks like Zardari decided to screw Washington instead of Pakistan.

If so, good for him!

Lobe’s article also has a good roundup of the newly vocal and growing Mush Must Go chorus in the U.S. foreign policy sphere.


Pakistan’s The News reports that the PPP and the PML-N have agreed to form a coalition government.

The fate of the judiciary and Musharraf have not been clearly addressed, so it’s not clear if this is a lasting coalition or a superficial and tactical alliance.

According to The News:

Nawaz Sharif maintained that there is no difference in the two parties on the restoration of the deposed judges.

“We accept the mandate of PPP with an open heart and wish that PPP complete its five year term,” he said, adding, “struggle for restoration of judiciary will continue and CoD [Charter of Democracy] will also be followed.”

PPP Co-Chairman, Asif Zardari said PPP and PML-N have decided to work together for democracy. However, he said, some of the matter are yet to be decided by the parties.

It would surprise me if the PML-N continues in the coalition if Musharraf remains in the presidency and the pre-November 3 judiciary is not restored.

It’s noteworthy that Asif Zardari and the PPP have taken a step away from the United States by pursuing a coalition with the PML-N.

It looks like Zardari is trying to bend U.S. support to Pakistani political realities.

Perhaps he’ll even try to persuade Washington to abandon its support of Musharraf.

Perhaps that's the assurance he gave to Sharif in order to bring the PML-N into the coalition.

And Sharif, afraid that he would be left standing on the sidelines if the PPP won the glory of driving Musharraf from office, cautiously decided to enter the coalition with the intention of opting out later if the PPP falters in its anti-Musharraf fervor.

Original post below

Nawaz Sharif sees no reason to follow Asif Zardari and the PPP into a dead end.

Sharif, leader of the opposition PML-N, is saying his demand that the pre-November 3 judiciary be restored—which would most likely directly lead to the invalidation of Musharraf’s presidential election—is non-negotiable.

With the provincial assemblies that vote on the president now dominated by the opposition (except in Balochistan, where Musharraf’s PML-Q managed to cling to the lead spot), any do-over of the presidential election would certainly lead to Musharraf’s departure.

Musharraf’s resignation is desired by about 75% of Pakistanis, according to the IRI poll.

An independent judiciary (close to but not quite “restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary”) was supported to 85% of respondents in the Terror Free Tomorrow (hereinafter TFT) poll .

One might be tempted to regard the PML-N’s uncompromising stance as posturing during the negotiations to form a coalition government.

But taking a junior position in a PPP-led coalition and, in effect, expending his political capital to help the PPP succeed in governing Pakistan doesn’t do a lot for Sharif.

Sharif has more to gain if he can gain control of Punjab province, where the PML-N won the plurality of seats, without having to kowtow to the PPP.

Given his party’s strong showing in the provincial elections held as part of the national assembly elections on February 18), where the PML-N won 102 Punjab seats to 77 for the PPP and 64 for the PML-Q, that goal might be in reach.

At the national level, Sharif has given every indication that a) he’s ready for a long-haul fight for power and b) he saw what Benazir Bhutto started to do with the PPP and wants to build a national, issue-oriented party and not just a Punjab powerhouse.

In this context, insisting on restoration of the judiciary isn’t a quixotic crusade or, as the US media misleadingly paints it, symptomatic of Sharif’s thirst for revenge against the guy who removed him from office in 1999.

It’s smart politics.

And as far as I can see, Nawaz Sharif is a pretty smart guy.

So I don’t expect him to abandon his confrontational stance.

And where does this leave Asif Zardari and the PPP?

Behind the political 8-ball.

The PPP is unwilling to insist on Musharraf’s ouster or the restoration of the judiciary.

Instead, it is exploring alternatives to the PML-N in alliances with the thuggish MQM (which controls Karachi) and those electoral remnants of the despised PML-Q who have supposedly been purified in the flames of the February 18 election and are worthy of admission into the PPP.

In other words, the PPP is sliding into alliance with Musharraf, the PML-Q, and the MQM: three of the least popular forces in Pakistani politics.

Excuse me.

I forgot the fourth and least popular force in Pakistan politics (20% according to TFT): the United States.

If the PPP compromises with Musharraf, the (completely accurate) rumblings of outrage that Asif Zardari sold out Pakistan for the sake of the secret PPP+Musharraf power sharing deal demanded by the United States will only increase.

Pardon me.

That puts the PPP on the wrong side of the fifth and even less popular issue (9% approval according to TFT) in Pakistan: supporting the US/Musharraf War on Terror military campaign against the al Qaeda, Taleban, and the Pashtuns in West Pakistan.

With the PPP ready to embrace this armful of political anvils, it doesn’t look like genius for the PML-N to hold back.

It looks like common sense.

If the PPP-led coalition allows Musharraf to stay in the presidency, doesn’t restore the pre-November 3 judiciary, and collapses into bickering and impotence, producing a hung parliament, then Musharraf can dissolve parliament and call for new elections, perhaps even a few months from now.

Then the PPP would be running on a platform of failure, ignoble compromise, and squandered sacrifice...against the PML-N, which dominates Punjab, with its share of over half of the seats in the National Assembly and has consolidated its position as leader of the national middle class with its popular stance on Musharraf and the judiciary.

The next salvo in Pakistan’s political battle may be March 7.

According to Dawn :

LAHORE, Feb 20: Supporters of Aitzaz Ahsan, the detained president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, defied police restrictions and carried him on their shoulders outside his Zaman Park residence.Talking to the media, Mr Ahsan reiterated his call for restoration of deposed judges by March 7. “Otherwise we will hold a long march and gather in Islamabad from all over the country,” he said.

He said lawyers would not settle for anything less than the reinstatement of deposed judges and they were ready to negotiate with all political parties for the purpose. “But I want to make one thing clear. That we have a one-point agenda: restoration of all deposed judges,” he added....He said the PPP could not ignore the issue of reviving the pre-emergency judiciary because Benazir Bhutto herself had declared Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry as the “real” chief justice of Pakistan.

A Los Angeles Times profile gives an idea of Ahsan’s national stature:

A celebrated lawyer, Ahsan was shut away in jail and then in his home here for speaking out against Musharraf's six-week emergency rule late last year and for defending Pakistan's popular chief justice, whom the president had summarily dismissed.The crackdown on Ahsan turned this distinguished, articulate man into a national hero, a prisoner of conscience whose confinement, in the eyes of many, symbolized the arrogance and highhandedness of Musharraf's rule.

If you don’t think lawyer militancy and restoration of the judiciary aren’t potential minefields for the PPP, consider this:

Ahsan is not just one of the most popular and respected people in Pakistan.

He’s also a PPP politician whose name was floated as a possible consensus prime minister.

And three weeks from now he could be leading a protest march against a PPP-led coalition government.

Like I said, it’s not over yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The Drunken Old Guy’s Mind Isn’t Really on the Wine...

...Is the Pentagon Really Worried About the Hydrazine?

So asks the Chinese Internet in the matter of Satellite USA 193.

America’s announced plans to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite this week has elicited an avalanche of commentary and snark from China.

By Google’s count, there are 24,300 hits for the Chinese-language search string, “The drunken old guy’s mind isn’t really on wine + U.S. satellite.”

That is either a sign of the celerity of the China blogosphere’s hive mind or an indication of how quickly a meme can spread when the government controls the Internet, or both.

I think official Chinese concerns boil down to four elements:

1. Asserting China’s qualifications as a space power on par with Russia and the United States.
2. Imputing hidden motives to the US for conducting the operation
3. Expressing resentment that the US did a better PR job than the Chinese did with their test
4. Hoping that the US will screw up.

The Chinese desire to be regarded as space peers and not just irritating kibitzers is evident in a news report that the United States will call on fellow space powers Russia and China for assistance in tracking the hulk if the shootdown fails.

The Chinese papers are filled with home grown wonkery and analysis in addition to translations from the Western media, seemingly intended to assert that the PRC is a fully paid-up and high-performing member of the space club.

One piece offered the observation that the speed, infrared signature, trajectory, and available window weren’t suitable to the test of an anti-missile missile so by default it could be considered a subset of an anti-satellite test.

Another article advised that the altitude of the operation and the time window available for the shot would give a good idea of the intentions behind the test.

Indeed, the Chinese were quick to look beyond the Pentagon’s solicitude for the people of earth threatened by a none-too-catastrophic barrage of hydrazine.

The expression, “The drunken old man’s mind isn’t really on the wine” is taken from a poem by the Song literatus Ouyang Xiu.

In the poem the drinker’s mind is on the landscape, but the meaning of the phrase has evolved to express suspicion of ulterior motives.

And the Chinese are perfectly willing to ascribe ulterior motives to the US test, from destroying sensitive technology to testing anti-missile and anti-satellite systems to intimidating the Chinese and the Russians.

By questioning the Pentagon’s narrative, the Chinese want to undercut America’s pretensions to responsible and honest space power-hood that it has claimed with its prior notification and the relative transparency surrounding the planned shootdown.

(And I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. media campaign was carefully designed to draw invidious comparisons between Chicom secrecy and recklessness and America’s careful stewardship of its space turf.)

There is also barely suppressed hope in China that the United States will screw up, either by missing the satellite or creating an embarrassing shower of wreckage, so that the Chinese, still smarting from the PR debacle of their own ASAT test, can savor the sweet, sweet taste of schadenfreud.

I find it rather ironic that the public US disarmament community is also unable to divine the actual motives for the U.S. shootdown.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still dispute over why the Chinese knocked down their satellite.

America’s continued desire to treat its pre-eminence in space as beyond challenge or discussion is well illustrated by the shootdown of USA 193—a unilateral piece of public-safety policing by the world’s self-appointed space sheriff.

It reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s invocation of Star Wars as humanity’s shield against invading aliens and angry asteroids.

China’s awareness of America’s strategic dominance in space, its desire to be treated as an equal in space—and its desire to have both its role and the American presence in space the subject of peer-to-peer negotiation--should not be dismissed as a motivation for its test.

And yes, America’s rejection out of hand of the Russian and Chinese initiative at the UN disarmament conference last week to ban space weapons does seem to be on China’s mind.

And now for something completely different:

The Internet, being a wonderful place, has an fascinating page of recollections by ex Air Force captain Gregory Karambelas and his collaborator, Sven Grahn, concerning America’s ASAT program in the 1980s.

At that time, our weapon of choice, the Miniature Homing Vehicle interceptor, was a modified anti-tank armament fired from an F-15. According to Karambelas, it was a rather kloogy device, with a primitive IR sensor that had to be cooled down to 4 degrees Kelvin using liquid helium provided both from the back seat of the jet and an on-board tank after the missile was in flight.

Getting a good IR signature seems to be a common theme in the space weapon business.

Test shots were scheduled for times when the target had been heated up by the sun, and considerable effort was expended trying to develop fuels that would not befuddle the primitive sensor by clouding the area around the interceptor with IR contaminants.

In December 1985, Major Doug Pearson became the world’s only space ace, piloting his jet to 38,100 feet, pulling up to a climb angle of 65 degrees, firing the MVI, and destroying an obsolete scientific satellite, Solwind P78-1, 345 miles above the Pacific.

There were, of course, plans for further tests and two target satellites a.k.a. Instrumented Target Vehicles (with sensors to detect both direct hits and near misses) were launched. They were supposed to inflate like giant beach balls (six feet across), and heated using hydrazine (there’s that word again) to provide a controllable infrared signature.

However, the ban on ASAT tests kicked in and the ITVs orbited, lonely and unused, for the next few years until their orbits decayed and they fell to earth.

For those interested in the history and technology of space activities, I recommend a visit to Sven Grahn’s website, Sven’s Space Place .

Dr. Grahn works in the Swedish satellite program and was one of the first foreigners to witness a Chinese satellite launch, in 1988 at Jiuquan.

His site includes articles on his career in aerospace, coverage of the Chinese and Russian space programs, interesting historical sidebars like the F15 ASAT story (profusely illustrated with cutaways of the MVH and ITV, orbital data, and etc.), and disturbing what-ifs—like the Soviet plan to explode an atomic bomb on the moon in a propaganda demonstration to the citizens of planet Earth of all that was cool and wonderful about the USSR’s space and technology programs.

In other words, something like our ASAT operation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pakistan Election Roundup

The big winner in the February 18 general election was Nawaz Sharif.

His PML-N party exceeded expectations by a significant margin, winning 66 national assembly seats, second only to the PPP’s 88.

In the PML-N (and Pakistani political and economic) heartland of Punjab, Sharif’s party took advantage of the collapse of Musharraf’s PML-Q to win a plurality of the national and provincial assembly seats. As a result, the PML-N is the first choice for the PPP’s partner in a coalition government.

And the game isn’t over yet.

Sharif announced a political amnesty for the few PML-Q politicians who were able to survive the electoral holocaust and are now anxiously looking for a new home in the PML-N.

If Sharif scoops up the PML-Q assemblymen and women, he could theoretically claim first place in the national elections and the right to form the government (not likely) and become strong enough inside Punjab to form the provincial government without having to haggle with the PPP (what he really wants).

The PML-N has gained stature among Pakistan’s educated and professional classes by its unwavering stand for restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary as the benchmark for the democratization of Pakistan’s civil society.

In his first press conference since the election (PKPolitics has the clip; it’s not all Urdu; there are a couple of English-language exchanges) Sharif cannily linked two popular issues—restoration of the judiciary and Mush Must Go.

He insisted that the judiciary be restored and the reconstituted Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of Musharraf’s second term as president.

Since Musharraf ran while still in uniform—blatantly unconstitutional—and the deposed Supreme Court justices, under house arrest since November 3 and unfairly vilified in the government press, will be utterly uninterested in cutting Musharraf any slack, and since 70% of the electorate wants Musharraf to go anyway, the chances of Musharraf emerging from this kind of judicial review with his presidency intact is pretty much zero.

By this process, Sharif a) gets the Supreme Court to do his dirty work and b) and gets popular kudos for championing Pakistan’s independent judiciary.

And Sharif gets to wrong-foot the PPP, which is awkwardly attempting to preserve its domestic democratic credibility but at the same time live up to the deal Benazir Bhutto made with Washington, by which she would prop up Musharraf in return for a chance to return to Pakistan, contest the elections, and win the prime ministership.

Now, if the PPP had thoughts of accommodating Musharraf (and Washington), it has to take the immensely unpopular step of ignoring popular demand for restoration of the independent judiciary—with zero political cover from the PML-N.

Reportedly, Sharif also made participation in a national PPP coalition government conditional on the PPP putting Aitzaz Ahsan, the barrister who is champion of Pakistan lawyer’s movement, in the PM slot.

That’s a malicious poke in the eye and kneecapping of the political fortunes of the two men who would be king—or at least prime minister, Bhutto’s widower Asif Zadari or Makhdoom Amin Faheem, the de facto leader of the PPP.


The PPP is also a winner, of course.

It won the greatest number of seats, and convincingly demonstrated its credentials as Pakistan’s only national party, winning races in Punjab, the North West Frontier Provinces, and Balochistan, as well as dominating its home state of Sindh.

But it looks like its electoral fortunes have crested without achieving the national mandate it aspired to, let alone the 2/3 share of the vote that Asif Zardari promised or even the 50% share that the International Republican Institute’s dubious pre-election poll predicted.

Punjab looks to become Nawaz Sharif territory. And Punjab is, literally, more than half the battle.

And the PML-N has the better of the national debate, with Sharif consciously leveraging his acknowledged national stature and and pro-judiciary pro-democracy credentials to work beyond provincial identity politics and forge an issue-based political organization that resonates with Pakistan’s educated and prosperous classes nationwide.

By contrast, the PPP is too close to the United States and its unpopular security policies, saddled with a rather ridiculous quasi-religious cult of personality centered on Benazir Bhutto, associated with violent and parochial Sindh chauvinism, and led by an unpopular and ethically challenged co-chairman (Zardari) who owes his position to Bhutto’s political will, which imposed him on a party organization that really doesn’t like him.

The PPP will have its hands full dealing with Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N.

The PPP has already vowed not to deal with the pro-Musharraf parties in forming a government, which means a coalition with the PML-N is in the cards.

Future cracks in this marriage of convenience between the PPP and the PML-N is supposed to offer the only hope for Musharraf, who otherwise would be gassing his plane for exile in Turkey or the Maldives or wherever.

If the two opposition parties can’t get their act together, Musharraf gets a few months of drift and bickering followed by an open split and a hung parliament, at which time he can dissolve parliament and hold new elections, in which he hopefully will do better.

This may be a forlorn hope, since the party that will probably do better is the PML-N, which is vocally and visibly intransigent on the issue of Pervez Musharraf.

The United States now has a brief window of opportunity to do something constructive in Pakistani politics.

The deep thinkers of the State Department could look at the election results, decide that we did our honorable best by Musharraf, our loyal but terminally inept strongman, and give our backing to his peaceful departure.

The PPP would be spared the suicidal role of appearing as Musharraf’s protector, and be able to form a governing coalition with the PML-N in a subordinate position inside the government, instead of throwing rocks at it from the outside.

The U.S. has always abhorred a situation in which the PPP and the PML-N formed a coalition.
Sharif is generally if inaccurately understood to be anti-American.

Back in December, President Bush publicly expressed doubt that Sharif could cut it as a partner of the World’s Only Superpower in the Global War on Terror.

Sharif’s problem is not that he’s anti-American.

The anti-American religious parties in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Provinces got trounced by the secular Awami National Party.

No, the Bush administration’s problem is deeper than that.

Sharif represents resistance to the Bush administration’s confrontational security policy; resistance that, post Iraq, has become mainstream not only in Pakistan but throughout the Middle East.

His primary overseas patron is Saudi Arabia.

Sharif represents an Islamic security doctrine quietly championed by Riyadh that values stability (and has come to reject America’s highly destabilizing actions in the Middle East), is comfortable with religiously conservative regimes, and doesn’t care too much about what happens to Karzai, the NATO-backed regime in Kabul, or any of the other democracies we have midwifed so bloodily in the region.

Washington fears that a PPP coalition under the influence of the PML-N (which is extremely popular: it polled above 70% in Pakistan, according to the International Republican Institute) would reflect this orientation and adopt policies popular with the Pakistani people i.e. decouple from the U.S. war on the Taleban and al Qaeda just at the time that the prospect of losing Afghanistan has started giving U.S. policymakers some serious heartburn.

No question that’s a problem.

Inside Pakistan, support for the U.S.-led War on Terror clocks in at an unimpressive 9%.

The Pakistani people hate it, the army hates it, and as a result even Musharraf couldn’t even do more than a half-hearted job of pursuing militants in Pakistan’s west.

No matter who’s in power, we’re not going to unearth some miracle race of Pakistani crusaders ready to kill their own Muslim citizens so NATO can destroy Pakistan’s natural Pashtun allies in Afghanistan.

Better to settle for a popular, stable PPP/PML-N government in Pakistan without Musharraf but with Kiyani (the new, improved army strongman) and hope that all that money we’re throwing at Pakistan buys us some grudgingly-acknowledged leverage for anti-extremist initiatives that suit both U.S. policy and the Pakistani national mood.

Of course, accepting half a loaf is not really what the Bush administration is about. Its usual response to a setback is to blame it on a deficiency of will and vigor, and double down when the facts on the ground are screaming Change Course! instead.

So we’ll see whether Washington casts its vote in favor of the PPP+Musharraf, continued division and drift in Pakistani politics and security doctrine, and eventual dominance by Nawaz Sharif and a PML-N grown more overtly anti-American.

Or maybe we can do something smart right now.

We can decide if we—and Pakistan--emerge out of this thing as winners or losers.
Pakistan electoral map from http://www.dawn.com/

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Fasten Your Seatbelts for Pakistan’s Elections...It Might be a Bumpy Ride

IRI Pulls Out of Pakistan Election Monitoring

The Washington Post’s Robin Wright reported on the State Department’s mad scramble to find somebody to monitor Pakistan’s general election on February 18.

Seems the International Republican Institute, the ostensibly independent organization that does the polling and monitoring in countries where the U.S. cares about democracy, notified the State Department on January 30 that they weren’t going to do it.

This is a highly significant development--and possibly the sign of deep and dangerous rot in America's Pakistan policy.

McClatchy, as usual, was ahead of the pack with its coverage.

Back on January 25, Jonathan Landay wrote :

Privately, Pakistani officials have assured the Bush administration that U.S. and European Union monitoring teams will have free access to election sites and won’t be subject to the extensive restrictions that Pakistani election officials outlined last month, U.S. officials said.

But Pakistan is refusing to reconsider a regulation that bars monitors from conducting exit polls, said Lorne W. Craner, the president of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. democracy promotion group that planned to send dozens of election monitors to Pakistan.

“It’s very unusual not to be able to do an exit poll,” said Craner, explaining that such surveys provide an independent means of verifying official election results.

“An exit poll or a parallel vote tabulation is an extra assurance of the legitimacy of the election,” he said.

A potentially bigger issue is whether the IRI will even organize monitoring in light of the risks to Americans in Pakistan. Americans have been the frequent targets of attacks by Islamic insurgents allied with al-Qaida and Taliban extremists from Afghanistan, and Craner said the IRI has a “very big” concern with security.

I take the security issue was not an expression of concern that Pakistan is dangerous for Americans, though it certainly is.

It probably had more to do with the fact that Musharraf is hostile to the IRI and his promises to provide security for IRI personnel were viewed with skepticism. The Musharraf administration has a bad track record of providing security for people—like Benazir Bhutto—that it doesn’t really like.

Musharraf has good reason to dislike the IRI. Its most recent poll allowed the opposition PPP to claim a mandate-worthy 50% support going into the election.

That’s an awfully high number. The Terror Free Tomorrow poll, conducted over the same period, gave a support level of 36.5% to the PPP, something that seems much more reasonable.

Even the anti-Musharraf domestic media expressed concern about the encouragement that poll result would give to opportunistic politicians (i.e. PPP co-chairman and Bhutto widower Asif Zardari) interested in using allegations of a tainted elections as a jumping off point for a people power power play.

However, reading between the lines, as we do compulsively at China Matters, there’s something more than security concerns going on.

The IRI has been in Islamabad since last August preparing for this election. It knows the environment it’s dealing with, and had a chance to make security arrangements.

The sticking point was probably Musharraf’s unwillingness to allow exit polls.

I don’t blame him, since IRI exit polls have been a crucial ingredient in color-coded revolutions from the Ukraine to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan.

Elections are held, the opposition cries fraud and cites the IRI exit polls as evidence of skullduggery, a big crowd of people stages a sit-in at some big square in the capital, the United States expresses its heartfelt concerns and anxieties for democracy in country X, NGOs provide material support for the protesters so they can keep country X in political limbo, the government finally gives up and quits...etc.

One can understand Musharraf’s desire to short circuit that kind of process at the earliest possible link.

So no IRI exit polls.

The key question in this game within a game is the attitude of the U.S. government.

The previous color coded revolutions were all about poking a stick in Vladimir Putin’s eye.

Pakistan is different.

Musharraf is our guy. I don’t think the Bush administration wants to go all Jimmy Carter and orchestrate the removal of a pro-U.S. strong man, like Carter did to Marcos in the Philippines.

Hosni Mubarak of Egypt wouldn’t like that. Neither would the guys who run Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates, etc.

The U.S. policy in Pakistan has been all about the extremely dubious and unlikely strategy of allying Musharraf with the PPP.

That’s why we engineered Benazir Bhutto’s return. She was supposed to do well in the elections and form a new government that would provide legitimacy and stability to Musharraf’s presidency.

It’s a strategy that has become less and less plausible as Musharraf’s popularity has cratered and 70% of Pakistanis—according to the IRI poll—want Musharraf to resign.

And there’s a chance that the PML-Q—Musharraf’s party and the party that was supposed to perform well enough to serve credibly as the PPP’s coalition party—would be decimated in a reasonably fair election, leaving the field open for a coalition government of the PPP and the religiously conservative, pro-Saudi, and anti-GWOT PML-N—something that the United States really doesn’t want.

According to the U.S. strategy, democracy was supposed to strengthen Musharraf.

Now it’s the one thing that could destroy him.

Rather ironic.

If I were to make a guess about our Pakistan strategy, it would be this:

We want a PPP/PML-Q coalition government.

The only way for the PML-Q to make a decent showing on February 18 is by vote rigging.

Musharraf knows that the U.S. is caught between its democratic rhetoric and the reality of its desperate wish that the PML-Q comes out well enough to ally with the PPP.

In other words, we want vote-rigging, even though we can’t publicly endorse it.

So Musharraf cuts the IRI out of the loop.

Musharraf knows Washington accepts his move—and a vote rigging strategy—and sure enough the State Department doesn’t raise a huge fuss.

In fact, it raises no fuss at all.

Instead, the State Department keeps the lid on the news about IRI while it scrambles around looking for somebody—anybody!—to show up to monitor the elections but do no exit polling.

Musharrf hunkers down, prepares to rig the elections and ride out the storm, assuming that the U.S. won’t back calls for his ouster.

Washington hopes that the PPP will be satisfied by gaining a plurality in the elections and ally with a PML-Q that squeezed into second place through vote rigging.

Problem is, this kind of coalition is extremely unpopular in Pakistan—only 11% of respondents in the IRI poll supported it.

The legitimacy and the effectiveness of the PPP would be undercut by participation in such an unpopular and fraudulent arrangement. Asif Zardari, trying to leverage his management of the U.S. relationship into the leadership of the PPP, might support it, but the rest of the PPP leadership opposes it.

So maybe we get our coalition, but the country blows up anyway.

Not much we can do about it.

Now I think all we have is a seatbelt strategy: we’re passengers on Pakistan’s runaway electoral bus.

All we can do is buckle our belts as our Pakistan strategy hits the wall on February 18, and hope we can walk away.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Arrow, the Tiger, and the Bicycle

The Battle for Punjab and Pakistan's Future

Whether the February 18 elections produce an immediate national crisis, an unpopular U.S.- friendly regime, or a stabilizing coalition of opposition parties depends on the Punjab.

In terms of wealth, population, members of parliament, media attention, and elite clout, Punjab is the state that matters most in Pakistani politics.

Its 148 national assembly seats are the key to the February 18 general elections.

With the Sindh-based PPP expected to dominate its own province and do well in the Balochistan and the North West Frontier Provinces, Punjab is the province in which the winner of the national plurality will be determined.

Punjab is also the main battleground between two factions of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML-Q and the PML-N.

The PML-N is headed by Nawaz Sharif, Punjab’s former chief minister and its favorite son, previously prime minister of Pakistan and currently opposition leader.

The PML-Q was created from the ruins of Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League as the bulwark of President Musharraf's power when Sharif was driven from power--and out of Pakistan--in 1999.

The PML-N expects to do quite well in Punjab and even in the national elections.

The PML-Q's popularity has collapsed along with Musharraf's, but it hopes its resources of patronage, administrative pressure, and vote rigging will enable it to survive the February 18 elections with a minimal loss of seats.

If the PML-N cuts into PML-Q support enough, it may deny Musharraf’s party the national plurality it needs to form the new government.

If the PPP and the PML-N both do well enough in Punjab to push the PML-Q into third place without the PPP gaining an absolute majority nationwide, it will encourage the formation of a PPP/PML-N coalition, something desired by 72% of respondents in the recent IRI poll.

If the PPP overcomes the PML-N in Punjab and Sharif’s party places third nationally behind the PML-Q, Zardari may feel he has the political cover to exclude Sharif and ally with Musharraf in the coalition that Washington—and nobody else—wants.

If the PML-N cuts into PPP support enough, it may deny Zardari’s party the plurality it needs and puts the PML-Q on top again; then the PPP will call its supporters in the streets and trigger a national crisis rather than submit to a hung parliament and a new election.

Punjab is the most important story in the elections.

But nobody seems to know what will happen.

There are predictions that the PML-N will get 45 to 110 seats, virtually all of them in Punjab.

That's a difference of more than a factor of 2.

There’s plenty of reason for uncertainty.

Half of the Pakistani population is illiterate, and will be marking the ballot not based on the candidate’s name, but on the electoral symbols arrow (PPP), tiger (PML-N), and bicycle (PML-Q) or the 143 symbols of the other smaller parties contesting the elections.

And the symbol they seek will depend upon preferences of the elites that control Pakistan’s localities.

In Pakistan’s countryside, politics aren’t local—they are family...and feudal.

Kinship networks, known as biradari, of rich, educated families dominate rural society.

These biradari networks obtain political insurance for their local standing and interests by fielding their sons and (some daughters) as candidates for the provincial and national assemblies.

The biradari provide employment, protection, and justice or their opposite to millions of rural workers. At election time, the biradari deploy these workers as political assets, known as their “vote bank”, on behalf of their selected candidates.

Sometimes a biradari monopolizes a particular district. Sometimes biradari go head to head.

So inside baseball Pakistani political reporting reads like this :

The NA-86 (Chiniot city and Saddar) [Punjab] constituency has seen, in the past, many keen contests fought between Sheikh Samlanas and Shah Daultanas.The two major branches of the Bukhari Sayeds, residing in this area for more than four centuries, have their base in Thathi Gharbi and Rajoa Saddat, respectively...

Shah Daultanas won the seat in 1977 and 1985 [and 1993 and 2002]...

Sheikh Samlanas had their share of success in 1988 and 1990 when Amir Hussain Sayed won the seat on a PPP ticket.

For the 2008 elections, the PPP has awarded ticket to Sayed Enayat Ali Shah, the cousin of Amir Hussain Sayed, who is facing Sardarzada Muhammad Tahir Shah on a PML-Q ticket...

Annoyed with the party decision, Amir Hussain Sayed has also filed his nomination papers from the same constituency...

Got that?

The parties the baridari choose to represent are not selected according to permanent ideological preferences or political loyalties.

Party affiliation is based on a clear-eyed evaluation of which party has the best chance of success.

After Musharraf deposed Sharif in 1999 and expelled him from the country, political candidates in Punjab shifted wholesale to a new party sponsored by the government, the PML-Q.

The PML-Q led the formation of the governing coalition in parliament and dispensed patronage, lavish to the point of fiscal irresponsibility, primarily in Punjab.

Now that Sharif has returned and the popularity of Musharraf and the PML-Q has cratered, lota (turncoat or opportunistic) candidates are peeling off from the PML-Q and seeking tickets as PML-N or PPP candidates.

Lota is a particularly insulting term, since a lota is a water jug used in South Asia for washing one's backside. Lotas often have rounded bottoms and tend to roll back and forth, evoking the image of someone who switches from one position to another and is inconstant in his or her loyalties.

The gyrations of Punjab's most notorious lota, Colonel (retired) Cheema in Punjab’s National Assembly district 101 are particularly noteworthy.

Colonel Cheema served as Benazir Bhutto’s Defence Minister and ran on a PPP ticket; when she was kicked out, he switched his allegiance to Nawaz Sharif and ran on a PML-N ticket; and when Sharif fell, Cheema became a core member of the PML-Q. Despite his track record (or perhaps because of it), the PML-Q shouldered him aside for this electoral cycle.

Col. Cheema’s shortcomings are indignantly discussed in a Pakistani politics message board (Urdu snark and translation in bold):

Col(r) Ghulam Sarwar Cheema common known as \\\"Lota e Azam\\\" [Turncoat of the Nation; sardonic twisting of title Quaid e Azam “Leader of the Nation” bestowed on Pakistan’s founder-ed] in the constituency was the one who after the musharaff take over on oct 12,99 branded Mian Nawaz Sharif as \\\" Ullu Ka patha\\\" [Urdu “son of an owl” e.g. “idiot”-ed] in all national newspapers again went to ask for ticket but this time he was disgraced and denied PPP and then PML(N) ticket.

Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Marhuma Rated him as \\\"personna non Gratta\\\" and PML(N) flatly refused to entertain his application.

Now after having no option he is openly siding with Hamid Nasir Chattha and have placed hs daughter to oppose PML(N) candidate. On the other side when Mian shahbaz sharif and Nawaz Sharif visited the constituency his banner were also there to greet them. What A charachter to earn such a name \\\"lota e Azam\\\". :)

It’s easy even for Pakistani political junkies to get confused.

The reference to Cheema running his daughter is apparently incorrect. There is a Cheema running on a PPP ticket, but she’s the daughter of another powerful local Cheema, Shahnawaz Cheema.

The PML-Q gave the NA 101 ticket to Hamid Nasir Chattha, a powerful Punjabi politician and himself a veteran of both the Bhutto and Sharif parties, whose family grouping, the Jatts is dominant in the area (the Cheemas are described as a sub-group of the Jatts and Cheemas have battled Chatthas in the last four parliamentary elections).

Chattha’s son, by virtue of his position as the local nazim or magistrate, has been pouring government money into the district, which is expected to benefit his father.

Colonel Cheema apparently does identify himself as a PML-N man, even though the party doesn’t currently want him. His charmingly disingenuous political profile can be viewed here .

He describes his affiliation as PML-N, while indiscriminately proclaiming his affection for Sharif, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Karl Marx, horses, cricket, squash, the army, and the rule of law (he wanted to become a barrister!).There is no mention of his previous position in the PML-Q, despite his rise to the position of acting secretary general of that party.

The question, especially for Sharif, is how much opportunism puts a prospective ally beyond the pale. With that “son of an owl” remark, Col. Cheema may have crossed that line, at least for now. The PML-N is running another candidate, a third Cheema-- Iftikhar Ahmed Cheema—but he is not expected to have a chance.

Whatever happens in NA-101, where the PPP is favored this year, and despite Zardari’s active recruitment of candidates and campaigning in Punjab, it looks like Nawaz Sharif has a solid base of support in his home province, especially in urban areas like Lahore where opinion politics has a role and biradari-type politics are less of a factor.

Province-wide, however, given the intricacies of biradari politics, popularity and polling are not dependable indicators of electoral success.

Add to that, the influence of the local nazims, who are supposed to influence elections in their jurisdictions on behalf of the current government, if not their relatives.

And add to that the ticket adjustments—where parties avoid fielding candidates in constituencies of important allies and insurmountable enemies.

Add to that the alleged vote rigging.

Several sites have taken on the thankless task of trying to predict the outcome of the parliamentary elections based on the relative local strengths of the various candidates.

The one that seems to go into the greatest depth, judging by its methodology, granularity, and the heated discussion of electoral minutiae on its message boards, is PKPolitics .

It makes an extremely rosy evaluation of Nawaz Sharif’s political fortunes, and takes the bold step of predicting that the PML-N will actually win 79 seats nationwide on February 18--more than the PPP!

That unlikely outcome would cause no small amount of heartburn for the PPP.

It’s one thing to attribute the disappointment of one’s political fortunes to vote-rigging on behalf of the despised PML-Q. But to lose out to the PML-N?

Especially since resentment of Punjabi domination of the national discourse is universal in Sindh and strong in Balochistan and the NWFP.

A result that gave the Punjab-based PML-N, if not the Punjab-based PML-Q, the upper hand would make the aftermath of the parliamentary elections interesting—and awkward—indeed both for the PPP and the PML-N.

But even without such an astounding result, it appears that Sharif hopes to exit February 18 with a decisive block in parliament, second only to the PPP, ready to settle into a ruling coalition, with the PML-N well positioned to expand its influence inside that key province.

That should be more than satisfactory to Sharif, who is unable to run for a seat (and compete for the prime ministership) himself in this election because of unfinished legal business.

He’s clearly in this for the long haul.

A pre-election profile in Pakistan’s biggest media conglomerate, Dawn, shamelessly fluffed Sharif’s prospects (editorial glossing in bold):

THE first impression that one gets after seeing Nawaz Sharif is that he is not a man in a hurry. He is at ease with himself, somebody who has gained weight, physically and politically, not to mention a full head of hair [Ed. note: This is a snarky reference to Sharif’s recent hair plugs. No doubt feeling the need to compete with the glamorous Benazir Bhutto, Mr. Sharif invested in a new hair line and a new, more cosmpolitan look before returning from Saudi Arabia for the elections. Compare and contrast the recent image above of Mr. Sharif as confident world leader with a magnificent coiffure with the black and white photograph below of Mr. Sharif in his younger and balder days, stuffed into national dress and looking like an embarrassed garden gnome.]

He seems to have realised that he is once again in the power game. It may take longer than he would like, but surely, sooner or later, he will get another chance to make it to that place up on the hill from where he was sacked unceremoniously over eight years ago.

He struggled back from a position where merely coming back to Pakistan was an achievement. Since then he is definitely going from strength to strength. Even his worst in the coming election may not be so bad. His aides are confident that the PML-N would be the biggest party in the National Assembly after the PPP by winning at least 70 seats.

Nawaz Sharif seems to have reconciled himself to not being anointed king this time. But he surely has a chance to become the king-maker.

And who knows if his stars continue to be as blessed as they are, a time may come when he decides the premiership for a possible national government.

The good thing is that he is focused on issues. He is taking a clear stance on the reinstatement of judges, unlike the PPP’s dilly-dallying on the issue.

In a recent meeting with Nawaz Sharif at his residence in Lahore it was obvious that he realises the political potential of the judges issue. It has a popular appeal and also endears him to the legal community. Even those lawyers who are PPP members acknowledge Mr Sharif’s categorical support.

He also seemed aware of the new media, the new judiciary and the new (civil society). That’s why among the first things that he did after his return was to call on Justice Ramday [one of the Supreme Court justices under house arrest for declaring Musharraf’s state of emergency illegal-ed].

The message that we got in Ittefaq Lane [the Sharif family residence-ed] was: who knows this might lead to the new army that the new chief is promising us in the new environment. Let, as they say, old be sold.

He wants to strengthen the public perception that he is, ironically Bhutto-like — a defiant and anti-status quo politician.

“We want to play it like a test match,” [obligatory
cricket reference ; Americans would say “we're running a marathon”] one of his confidantes shared his views during a recent visit to Lahore. “We know we are here to stay so that’s why we are done with old style of power play. We are seeking permanence in politics that only issues-based politics can bring.”

The author, Amir Mateen, hedges his bets at the end with a prediction that the PML-N might take only 45-55 seats nationwide, with the vast majority in Punjab.

Or it might get 79 seats, as PKPolitics thinks.

Or 110 seats, the number that both the PML-N and PML-Q are optimistically claiming for their own electoral prospects.

Or the the PML-N collapses, and the PPP overperforms in Punjab, comes away with 50 seats of its own, and commands enough seats nationwide to command a parliamentary majority and form a government without allies.

Or the vote riggers throw discretion to the winds, the PPP underperforms, and Zardari does his best to make heck break loose instead of accepting a hung parliament and a new election that sees the growth of Nawaz Sharif’s national stature and the PML-N’s clout inside Punjab at the PPP’s expense.

Better just to wait and see.

We'll know soon enough.

Photo credits:
Electoral symbols from the Pakistan government official website ttp://www.ecp.gov.pk/content/GE2008.htm
Picture of lota from Wikipedia
Portrait of Col. Cheema from his profile at http://www.pakistanileaders.com/
Map of NA101 and pie chart from http://www.pkpolitics.com/
The photograph of rural women in Punjab is by Ahmad Naeem Khan. His portfolio can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/naeemkhan/
Color image of Nawaz Sharif from http://www.rfi.com/
Black and white image of Nawaz Sharif from http://www.country-data.com/

The International Republican Institute Takes on Pakistan

There’s heat but very little light surrounding Pakistan’s impending parliamentary elections.

Western journalists are crowding into Pakistan in anticipation of a spectacular blowup following the February 18 parliamentary elections.

Pakistani political blogs are plastered with pie charts reflecting every conceivable bias and depicting every imaginable electoral outcome.

Just in the last week, two U.S. think tanks surveyed Pakistani opinion with remarkably divergent results--results that may be used either set the stage for a smooth transfer of power or plunge Pakistan into an instantaneous post-election crisis.

A U.S. think tank with the absurdly Orwellian name Terror Free Tomorrow (I guess that’s better than today, when we have to pay for our terror) recently attracted attention with a poll showing that al Qaeda and the Taliban have grown markedly less popular inside Pakistan since extremists adopted a policy of Muslim-on-Muslim violence with bombings in the heartland.

In its political findings, the TFT survey of 1157 people showed the PPP, led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Zardari, as the most popular political party in Pakistan—with 36.7%.

Nawaz Sharif’s opposition PML-N clocked in with a popularity of 25.3%.

These rather unexceptionable results were instantly overshadowed on February 11 when the International Republican Institute came out with its new poll on February 11 of 3,485 people.

In the areas that most concern us, the only thing less popular than Musharraf (16%) is cooperating with the US in the War on Terror (down from 15% to 9%). Heckuva a job, people!

But the IRI poll’s main impact is in the domestic electoral game.

The high profile IRI poll, appearing a week before the election, seems timed to trigger an avalanche of hundreds of articles in the domestic and international media—and expectations by international observers--about the strong position of the PPP just before the nation goes to the polls.

IRI showed the PPP attracting 50% of respondents nationwide--an enormous jump of 20% from the 30% support level IRI reported for the PPP in its previous, pre-assassination poll in November.

The IRI poll found the PML-N sagging at 22% nationwide, and losing in the Punjab to the PPP by 12%.

The IRI results immediately became an issue in the election campaign.

The PPP trumpeted the results:

Pakistan People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari has welcomed the IRI polls survey and termed it a great victory for the PPP and vindication of its position that only massive rigging can stop it from sweeping the elections.

The Pakistani government and the ruling party, the PML-Q, indignantly rebutted the findings. The PML-N has apparently kept silent.

Interestingly, there has been little discussion of the discrepancy between the IRI poll and the TFT poll on PPP popularity.

IRI’s 50% vs.TFT’s 36.7%.

For the identical period—January 19-29.

For poll samples large enough for error rates to be under 3%.

That’s a big enough discrepancy between TFT and IRI to make one wonder how sound somebody’s polling methodology is.

Some things in the IRI polling jump out: 61% male sample? How random is that?

The reliability of the poll is especially important since IRI holds the polling franchise for contesting allegedly rigged elections in the run-up to U.S.-backed color coded revolutions...and the U.S. apparently prefers a Musharraf/PPP government to one in which the PML-N participates and plays a moderating and rather anti-American role.

The IRI poll is key because the PPP is poised to claim rigged elections--and cite the IRI poll as evidence for electoral hanky-panky...and justification for initiating a mass movement against the government.

If the PML-Q comes out on top in the elections again with a plurality, the sizable PPP and PML-N blocks will presumably refuse to join.

This would normally result in a hung parliament, continued crisis and drift, dissolution of parliament, a new election—and a shrinkage of PPP gains in favor of the PML-N as the post-assassination fervor wears off.

But this is no ordinary year.

The PPP would find it intolerable to lose its charismatic leader and get jobbed out of power in the year it was supposed to win it all.

The PPP also realizes its political popularity is at its peak, and can only deteriorate, especially as the PML-N strengthens.

The PPP has clearly signaled that there will be no business as usual if it does not gain the right to form the government.

The PPP has decided it’s worth putting their people out on the streets if they don’t come out on top.

The IRI framing gives an idea of where this is all is really heading.

IRI asked what percentage of respondents would support protests against the government in the case of an apparently rigged election and 53% said they would.

The key qualification, one that may be overlooked, was in the hypothetical situation: “if the PML-Q won the most seats”, i.e. won a plurality.

The PML-Q is the current plurality holder with 126 of the 341 seats won with 25% of the votes, less than the PPP got. The PML-Q got the right to reach out to minority parties and form the ruling coalition with its guy as prime minister. The PPP, in second place with 81 seats, is excluded.

It’s a given that the PML-Q, with its support and Musharraf’s favorability both in the teens, will lose seats and the PPP (and PML-N) will make big gains.

Reading the popular mood, if Musharraf’s vote riggers commit the folly of engineering another PML-Q plurality, Pakistani opinion will probably go along with street demonstrations demanding that the PPP lead the formation of a government.

But, in a potentially significant distinction, there is probably not a national consensus on behalf of a mass movement claiming an exclusive national mandate for the PPP.

I would be interested to see how many people would have endorsed street demonstrations for the PPP pursuing power without a coalition “if the PPP did not win a majority”.

Probably a pretty low number.

Wish IRI had asked that question.

The IRI poll, with its assertion that the PPP enjoys 50% national support, provides Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s unpopular widower who parachuted into the PPP co-chairmanship after the assassination, with useful political leverage if the election turns out badly and the party needs justification for "taking it to the streets" to win a plurality and the right to form a government.

Dangerously, the 50% figure also offers Zardari the temptation to try to go it alone and demand an absolute majority--instead of a coalition-forming plurality--for the PPP, as the U.S. would prefer.

That would put him at odds with Pakistani public opinion, which apparently wants a coalition government instead.

I found it interesting that, according to IRI, while 50% support the PPP, 69% of respondents supported the scenario in which Musharraf resigns, a national unity government is formed, and free and fair elections are held.

That’s not a vote of confidence in the PPP. The PPP’s policy is adamantly opposed to a unity government. It wants to charge ahead, rigged elections be damned, IRI polling in hand, to exploit the surge of post-assassination outrage and act as the power broker in the new government.

The overwhelming preference seems to be for dumping the PML-Q and allowing the PPP to form a PPP/PML-N coalition led by Makhdom Amim Fahmim, the docile and conciliatory apparatchik who, but for Bhutto’s will, would probably have become the PPP’s next leader instead of Zardari.

This Solomonic dispensation would give the post-assassination PPP its due, but not let Zardari and his Sindhi cronies have the run of the place.

It would also bring Nawaz Sharif, currently the opposition politician with the highest national stature and a voice for the powerful Punjab faction, into the government.

Support for a PPP/PML-N coalition polled at 72%. Overall support for Fahmim as prime minister reached 56%.

The PPP will do well in the elections but, under Zardari, a jump in PPP approval from 30% pre assassination to 50% today doesn’t seem very sustainable—or a sound foundation for a post-election push for people power unless the PML-N is given a role as well.

Zardari is keen to keep the PPP juggernaut on track, but his recklessness and ego are a dangerous distraction to the party.

Zardari did not help himself or his party with an interview in Newsweek hinting at his ambition to win Benazir Bhutto’s old seat in an upcoming by-election, enter the national assembly, and shoulder aside Fahmim as prime minister.

“There is not one single personality [in the party], apart from me, who anybody even knows,” said Mr Zardari while explaining why he thought he should be the prime minister.

“No one else has a consensus.”

Not quite.

According to IRI, when asked who they wanted for prime minister for the PPP, 77% named Fahmim.

8% named Zardari.

That popular figure Don’t Know/No Response beat him by 4%.


Nevertheless, after all this IRI chose to describe Zardari as “one of the most popular leaders in the country” even though only 37% viewed him favorably--far behind Fahmim at 66% and Sharif at 55%.

Contrast that with TFT, which found that Nawaz Sharif’s favorable/unfavorable rating among all respondents was 72%/18%; for Asif Zardari, it’s 48%/32%.

Dawn’s profile of Zardari mocked the efforts of PPP flacks to compare Zardari to Sonia Gandhi and openly questioned his judgment:

It’s a topsy-turvy world and so is the new PPP.

It turned out that at first Babar Awan [Benazir Bhutto’s lawyer and PPP functionary] was trying to please Asif. This is the old way in the new PPP to become closer to Caesar Zardari. That’s how he rose in the ranks so fast but now wants to rise higher. Not to be left behind, the overly ‘made-up media maidens’ (MMM) of the PPP[the author is presumably referring to PPP spokesperson Sherry Rehman, whose glamorized, Westernized, and Bhuttoized look apparently doesn’t sit well with him] are, in competition, getting Asif interviewed to anybody they can get hold of. And Asif, who was denied this glamour for eight years in dungeons, is now relishing the spotlight in prestigious magazines like the Newsweek. Therein lies the biggest challenge for Asif Zardari. As the new order replaced the old, the stakes going higher, people are desperate to cross party lines. Asif may have acquired lots of dubious wisdom in jail, but he remains a little extra mortal when it comes to sycophancy.

The PML-Q exploited Zardari’s poor credibility and judgment by jumping on a statement he made that he might be able to work with Musharraf after the elections.

The PML-Q took this as an admission that he would be willing to abandon the opposition parties and principle for the sake of a deal to gain power:

But a senior aide to Pakistan's President claimed the PPP was set to form a "rainbow coalition" with the pro-Musharraf PML-Q and other parties it historically regarded with distaste. "The People's Party is ready to work with Mr Musharraf and the military establishment," said Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of PML-Q. "It has been in the political wilderness for 12 years, eagerly vying for power."

A PPP-PML-Q coalition attracts a dismal level of support: 11%.

Zardari probably came up with this profoundly unpopular gambit as an attempt to personally curry favor with the United States and boost his low status with Washington, which still entertains hope of a Musharraf/PPP coalition.

There is apparent national resistance to giving the PPP and Zardari carte blanche.

If Zardari is smart, he’ll make a conservative reading of the TFT and IRI polls and satisfy himself with a plurality and a ruling coalition with the PML-N--and not try to push for an absolute majority in the National Assembly and a linkup with Musharraf, no matter how much the United States encourages and flatters him.

Something to pay attention to on election night and afterwards.