The Second Battle of Islamabad

captisl10409290711pakistan_politics_isl104.jpgIslamabad, once Pakistan’s most serene and perhaps sedating city, is now at the center of its political storm. In the summer, its Red Mosque lived up to its name after days of gruesome violence left dozens killed and more injured in clashes between security forces and militants-students affiliated with Abdur Rashid Ghazi.

Today, the violence has shifted to the Election Commission, located (quite ironically) on Constitution Avenue. The Lawyer’s Movement gathered outside the Supreme Court to continue their protests against Pervez Musharraf and his bid for re-election. A few hours into the protests, they made their way toward the Election Commission headquarters, which has superseded the Supreme Court as the center of political contention.

The EC HQ was off-limits to them. Islamabad has been under a high state of alert, but the locus of the security presence was around the EC HQ. As lawyers (and media following them) made their way toward the cordoned off building, they were met with severe violence at the hands of state security apparatus.

The violence toward the media has been complemented with a television blackout in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area. This violence occurred while Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz remained inside the Election Commission headquarters (trapped for a bit) along with Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao, Chaudhry Shujaat, Farooq Leghari, Mushahid Hussain, and Arbab Ghulam Rahim. Farooq Sattar, a senior Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader wasn’t so lucky as he was outside of the gates of the EC HQ, and was beaten up by a group of lawyers. This is a dangerous development, perhaps opening the gates for MQM-led violence against lawyers and the opposition (especially the Jamaat-e Islami) in Karachi. Rather than controlling his political opposition, Pervez Musharraf has perhaps catalyzed a broadening of political violence into Pakistan’s largest city.  Moreover, he’s relinquished the slight increase in credibility he received yesterday after the Supreme Court’s decision in his favor.

A Supreme Non-Decision

From Nawaz Sharif’s ill-fated return to the Supreme Court petitions against his presidential candidacy, Pervez Musharraf has successfully pulled the air out of his opposition’s more dramatic attempts to oppose his rule. Friday’s Supreme Court dismissal of the anti-Musharraf petitions strongly suggests an arrangement between the High Court and Musharraf pre-figured the outcome well in advance. This enabled Musharraf to utilize as a political instrument a court that has built up a public image of independence, legitimacy, and virtual sacredness through opposing him. As a result, the Supreme Court’s decision has been largely met with resignation by the Pakistani public. Opposing the decision of the court would defy its new-found sanctity and public sentimentalism for the rule of law.

The nature and timing of the Supreme Court’s non-decision indicate an arrangement between Pakistan’s president and the High Court. Firstly, the petitions were dismissed on technicalities, not merit. This technical dismissal is consistent with the High Court’s previous rulings against similar anti-military rule petitions going back to the 1950s. Furthermore, non-maintainability should have been obvious and declared at the outset. A retired judge, Fakhruddin Ibrahim, speculates that the technical violation was that the petitions were submitted before Musharraf filed his nomination papers. The exact reasons are unknown, as the senior presiding justice, Rana Baghwandas, stated they would be “recorded later.”

The Supreme Court went through a complete set of extended proceedings, including closing arguments, though none of this was necessary for the court’s final ruling. So what was the purpose? It seems as if the prescribed goal was to draw out the process as close to the elections as possible, stifling any significant legal opposition to Musharraf’s re-election bid. After all, the court announced its decision late Friday afternoon, right before the start of the weekend, and its vague statement leaves the opposition unclear about what exactly they did wrong and what they can do to amend it. Time is running out for them: the elections are exactly a week away.

Musharraf’s opposition is fractured. In Pakistan’s political history, this story repeats itself. Pro-democracy and ideological alliances fracture because one party defects to eat the forbidden fruit. The Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) are PPP-less. The People’s Party will accommodate Musharraf as long as he removes corruption charges against Benazir and permits her to run for a third term.

The ARD and APDM are left with the PML-N, Tehreek-e Insaaf, and an MMA that’s falling apart as well. The JUI-F and JI divide is reaching a defining moment. Fazlur Rahman has clearly decided to block the MMA’s attempts to dissolve the NWFP Provincial Assembly and cause new parliamentary elections that would delay and precede presidential elections. Perhaps that explains his reasons for meeting U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson on Friday (under the pre-text for ‘valiantly’ telling her to leave Afghanistan). The Maulana definitely left the meeting with a reward– perhaps a kiss on his bearded cheek.

As for the lawyer’s movement, it may soon be losing its patriarch, and with yesterday’s ruling, has clearly lost control of its greatest instrument of change.

Musharraf is not completely in the clear, though he has averted what is probably his greatest challenge. Some suggest that yesterday’s ‘resolution’ was in the best interest of the country in that it avoided a catastrophic clash between pro and anti-Musharraf forces. Such is the power of threats. Pakistan’s elite must grow beyond temporary power sharing arrangements and actually come together on a real policy agenda for change and progress. If they fail to do so, they will find themselves and Pakistan’s remaining 160 million people underneath their toes captives on a Titanic sinking into the Arabian Sea. Rather than maintaining an ugly status quo, Pakistanis must decide where exactly they want to go.

Pakistan Supreme Court Dismisses Petitions Against Musharraf’s Candidacy

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has just ruled that petitions by Imran Khan (Tehreek-e Insaaf) and Qazi Hussain Ahmed (Jamaat-e Islami) that protested Pervez Musharraf’s eligibility for presidential re-election are “unmaintainable.” This clears the way for Musharraf’s re-election via an electoral college consisting of the national parliament and provincial assemblies. The lawyer’s movement will continue its opposition to Musharraf, perhaps focusing on the Election Commission’s irregularities, but the major remaining roadblock to the Pakistani president’s re-election is the potential denial of an electoral college quorum. This can occur if the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) resigns from the North-Western Frontier Province (NWFP) Provincial Assembly or if the People’s Party resigns from the National Assembly, which are unlikely.

Fazlur Rahman of the Jamaat-e Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F) only supports resigning from the National Assembly, a move that will amount to nothing tangible. The Maulana apparently hopes to be rewarded by Pakistan’s present rulers, or at the very least fears punishment with a poor showing in subsequent national and provincial elections. Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party will neither deny Musharraf a quorum nor vote for him. Their votes are not necessary for a Musharraf victory anyway. In short, the Supreme Court’s provides legal-political cover for Benazir Bhutto and Fazlur Rahman to “oppose” Musharraf in the most benign fashion possible.

The High Court’s decision is a significant blow for the lawyer’s movement, but isn’t a complete defeat for those desiring the rule of law in Pakistan. GEO TV reports that Justice Rana Bhagwan Das stated in his remarks, “We have buried the law of necessity,” strongly suggesting that military coups and other radical extra judicial acts will not be tolerated in the future. Essentially they can be saying to Musharraf, “This is the last time we’ll do this for you.” But that’s easier said than done — Musharraf received Supreme Court legitimization of his coup by strong-arming judges through the Oath of Judges Order in January 2000.

The court will come out with a detailed ruling perhaps later today, hopefully shedding light on how the opposition’s petitions were “unmaintainable.” Meanwhile, the Jamaat-e Islami’s lawyer Akram Sheikh will submit a review petition and ask that a full court, with the Chief Justice presiding, rule over the decision.

Benazir Bhutto on IAEA access to A.Q. Khan

New Media Face for Pakistan’s Foreign Office

Pakistan’s Foreign Office has announced that Muhammad Sadiq, the former deputy chief of mission (DCM) at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, will be replacing Tasnim Aslam as spokesperson. Aslam, a Fletcher School graduate, was the first female to hold the position in Pakistan’s history. She will vacate the position in two weeks, after having served for two years.The appointment of Sadiq as Aslam’s successor indicates the Pakistani government’s desire to bring in a diplomat with significant experience handling the U.S. media. Sadiq served as DCM in Washington from 2002-05. This gave him critical experience in a post-9/11 United States; additionally, Sadiq’s tenure in Washington witnessed a number of other challenges, including the nuclear proliferation scandal involving Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The choice of Sadiq is a step in the right direction, but Islamabad needs a more aggressive and comprehensive communications strategy to counter a discourse on Pakistan in the United States that is not only ill-informed, but increasingly dangerous. Some of my thoughts on how Islamabad can successfully defeat the ‘push on Pakistan’ dynamic are expressed here.

Blame it on the Ban

Apologies for our relative inactivity over the past few days. There have been some significant developments in Pakistan, however we haven’t had the opportunity to provide in-depth analysis. We’ve had some technical issues due to the partial ban of Blogger/Blogspot in Pakistan, which prevented many in Pakistan from visiting our site. As a result, we’ve switched blogging platforms to WordPress. We’ve enhanced the site’s aesthetics as well. For more on Pakistan’s Blogger ban, as well as Internet censorship in the country, please visit: Dr. Awab Alvi and Omer Alvie’s Don’t Block the Blog.

Nadeem Taj: New ISI Chief

The Pakistan Army has promoted six major generals to lieutenant general today. The most important advancement is that of Nadeem Taj, who is the new head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), replacing Ashfaq Kiyani (alt spellings: Ashfaq Kayani and Ashfaq Kiani).

Kiyani is likely to be the next Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS), paving the way for his automatic succession of Pervez Musharraf as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) upon the Pakistani president’s retirement from the army. Other candidates include Tariq Majeed, Muhammad Sabir, and Salahuddin Satti.

These leadership changes are critical for Musharraf as his retirement from the army and vacating the post of COAS makes him severely vulnerable. The COAS has historically been the most powerful position in Pakistan and Musharraf is keen to replace himself with a loyalist.

Pakistan’s current political climate is akin to an armed standoff in which two (or more, perhaps) sides have their guns pointed at one another. Musharraf will drop his weapon as requested by his opponents, but only if he can trust his backup. He wants ensure that he will not be pounced upon (or worse) by his political opponents or those armed on his side (i.e. COAS, VCOAS, DG ISI) after disarming himself. His personal security and influence can remain as long as those in control of the big guns are loyal to him.

Musharraf’s vulnerabilities will increase into October. A key factor in determining the extent to which he will be weakened will be determined not only by the ongoing Supreme Court hearings, but also by the extent to which the People’s Party and Fazlur Rahman’s JUI accomodate Musharraf. Political pragmatists, both Benazir and Fazlur Rahman are somewhat on the fence, are waiting to see if the tide will fully turn against Musharraf or if they can extract significant concessions from him while he’s weak.

Pakistan’s Crisis of Governance: Game Over or Going into Overtime?

On Friday, Benazir Bhutto announced that she will return to Pakistan on October 18, ending her eight years of self-exile. Soon afterwards, reports from a variety of parties in Pakistan indicated that the next 2-4 days would be marked by extremely important developments. There has been much talk over the weekend, but little action. Perhaps Pakistan’s political players have been bit by the Ramadan bug. Restrained by the Islamic calendar, Pakistan’s political elite will soon be compelled to make decisive decisions by the political calendar. Musharraf has temporarily sidelined Nawaz Sharif & Co., but faces challenges from the Supreme Court as well as current political partners to a deal with Benazir.

Nawaz’s ill-fated return to Pakistan last Monday was handled deftly by Pakistani authorities. The former prime minister wisely surrounded himself with Western and Pakistani journalists on PIA flight PK 786. As a result, Pakistan’s current rulers made sure not to manhandle Sharif in front of the world press, thereby increasing his popularity. Their eviction of Sharif was conducted behind the scenes, giving the Musharraf government plausible deniability. They can merely repeat the claim that Nawaz left on his own accord. They released Sharif’s supporters after a few days of detention—a very economical cessation of civil and political liberty designed to avoid overkill.

The former prime minister is effectively under house arrest in Saudi Arabia. His wife, Kulsoom, stated on Friday that Nawaz’s meeting with Saudi King Abdullah would produce a major “surprise.” That it did not. The Saudi monarch told Sharif to wait till the end of Ramadan and the Eid holiday to deal with his status. Barring any favorable decision from an extremely busy Supreme Court, this move keeps Sharif out of the country during the time period in which Musharraf needs to be re-elected. Should Sharif even return in a month, he could find a totally different political landscape: a uniformless Musharraf re-elected as president and Benazir back in the country, crowned queen and off buying linens for the prime minister’s official residence. Kulsoom could return to Pakistan and try to manage in his absence, but the utility of that move remains unclear. A return by Shahbaz is risky, and his cancellation of his trip with Nawaz suggests he is afraid of what will happen to him after arriving in Pakistan. Nonetheless, he could decide that absolute political irrelevancy is worse than jail, and make the trip to save PML-N.

Pakistan must hold presidential elections—conducted via an electoral college consisting of federal and provincial assembly members—between September 15 and October 15. Chaudhry Shujaat has guaranteed Musharraf 56% of the votes in his favor; while Musharraf does not need votes from Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party for re-election, he does need their parliamentary presence for a quorum. Members of the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM)—i.e. Nawaz’s PML, Jamaat-e Islami, and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i Insaaf—will resign once Musharraf’s nomination papers are accepted. This move could potentially deny Musharraf the necessary quorum should it result in the fall of the NWFP government.

As a result, it becomes necessary for Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s faction of the Jamaat-ul Ulema-e Islam to prop up both the provincial governments in NWFP and Balochistan. What Fazlur Rahman seeks in return is unclear. He’s been pretty loyal to Musharraf since 2003, playing an interesting balancing act between the MMA and Musharraf. His name has come up as an interim prime minister during the general elections. It would indeed be ironic that a cleric PM would house sit before the liberal coalition comes to power—especially since the US didn’t want Nawaz back because of his proximity to religious conservatives. However, looks can be deceiving: the maulana is a politician first and foremost.

Benazir too has waved the quorum card in recent days, perhaps for the first time, to put some pressure on Musharraf to take off his uniform before re-election. Mushahid Hussain stated on Saturday that Musharraf will resign from the army before November 15 and take the oath of office as a civilian, but such claims have been made before, and in fact were seemingly contradicted by another member of Musharraf’s government.

Should Musharraf even be willing to doff the uniform, his timing is constrained on another front—within his own military. His political adversity, to a degree, poses a challenge to the army’s cohesiveness and reputation. At some point, Musharraf could be seen as a liability for the military’s corporate interests. A uniformless Musharraf would then be easily expendable; deposition of a naked Musharraf by his deputy is conceivable. As a result, Musharraf can only lay down his gun when he can trust those who are armed. His deputy chief of army staff will retire on October 7. Musharraf can only retire from the army after that date, when he would be able to appoint a bonafide loyalist, ISI chief Ashfaq Kiyani, as his successor for COAS.

However, the Eid ul-Fitr holiday will likely occur in Pakistan from October 13-15, and that reduces the first window for a uniformless re-election to the period on or between October 8 and 12. Alternatively, Musharraf could dissolve parliament, call early elections, and run for re-election under fresh assemblies. This is the path Bhutto favors; it gives Musharraf’s presidency and their alliance greater credibility. Should her party fare very well in those elections, it would make her not only the quorum-maker, but the king-maker, and would deny the APDM use of their quorum-denying card. The Chaudhries oppose a uniformless re-election—out of fear it would over-empower Benazir. They, in fact, are still mumbling a bit about emergency rule, though that option hasn’t gained steam since it was nixed last month.

The recently amended election rule, irrespective of its constitutionality, permits Musharraf to run for re-election under uniform. The Pakistani president could then seek re-election while under uniform, and then retire from the army soon within days or weeks. This is the path most preferable to Musharraf as he secures his continuity from a position of strength.

There is also speculation that a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf has already been concluded or will be completed in the coming days, but won’t be formally announced. This keeps opponents of the deal off-base, distances Bhutto from Musharraf’s negative ratings, and permits Bhutto and Musharraf to maintain a veneer of non-collusion. Moreover, should Musharraf make some significantly unpopular and unconstitutional decisions, Bhutto can give tacit support without being tarred by such moves. Though a more informal deal will be by nature less stable, it will also rock the boat with the PML-Q much less than a more transparent arrangement.

The stability of the PML-Q should be a rising concern for Musharraf. Recent weeks have witnessed the slow (and perhaps premature) defection of PML-Q leaders to the PML-N, including a senior member on Sunday. As many as three dozen PML-Q MNAs might switch over to the Nawaz wing, in protest of both Musharraf and the Chaudhries. As a result, PML-Qer and Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi has enlisted the support of the previous (and more popular) PML-Q president, Mian Muhammad Azhar, to work to consolidate the fracturing party. A disintegrating PML-Q leaves Musharraf too vulnerable, especially if he retires from the army, and bolsters the position of both the PPP-P and the PML-N.

The lawyer’s movement too may be falling apart, allegedly at the hands of the PPP, as a part of their effort to ease things for Musharraf. That may very well backfire for Bhutto, as the movement appealed to the Pakistani public for their single-minded constitutionalism. Though the movement is heavily PPP-P influenced (Aitzaz Ahsan, the chief justice’s advocate, is a PPP MNA), if Bhutto treads too closely to Musharraf, she could permit the PML-N to absorb its remnants. Should this occur, she might face intolerable opposition from within her camp as more might come to the conclusion that her insistence on a deal with Musharraf is not out of national interest, but to avoid legitimate charges of political corruption.

In sum, the volatility within Pakistan’s political camps could rule out the possibility of dramatic announcements in the coming days, if not weeks. A deal could be achieved, but go unannounced. It is even conceivable that Benazir and Musharraf will never really achieve a comprehensive deal; rather, they will share political space over an extended period of time, each will give and take, and a moderately stable environment of friendly competition will exist. Such an arrangement permits Bhutto and Musharraf to retain their political bases and prevent the consolidation of opposition to them; but it also maintains an environment of mutual suspicion and the possibility that one will sense vulnerability on the other side and go for the jugular. Pakistan’s ‘deal-saga’ might prove to be less action-packaged drama than a political version of “The Never Ending Story.”

Return to Sender: Nawaz’s Four Hours in Pakistan

The information provided by Shaan’s sources on Sunday proved to be accurate: Nawaz Sharif was deported Monday afternoon Pakistan-time back to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Details of Sharif’s removal are murky.

After spending over two hours on the tarmac at Islamabad’s airport, Nawaz Sharif was arrested, charged with money laundering, and shipped to Saudi Arabia. Some reports state that he met with Tariq Aziz, a Musharraf confidante, as well as with senior Saudi officials, while this was later denied by government officials.

Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani alleges that Sharif chose to return to Jiddah on his own accord. Sharif claims he was duped and that he only consented to boarding a second plane after being told it was headed toward Karachi, where he would stand before a court.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz says that Sharif was presented with two options, jail or exile, and chose the latter. PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat confirms that these options were presented, but originally stated that Sharif accepted prison, and contradicted himself later, stating that Sharif chose exile.

One wonders whether Shujaat’s mistake was no mistake at all. His political position is as precarious as Musharraf’s. In any number of days, Musharraf could effectively dump him for Benazir, or reduce him to co-wife. Shujaat would be the expendable, older bride in a polygamous marriage. Understandably, he’s been in contact with Nawaz, who is his plan B. And so his ‘mistake’ could actually be a way to slip out the fact that Nawaz was removed from Pakistan against his will and in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Dawn provides some harsh anti-Nawaz quotes from Shujaat, but this could simply be posturing on his part or sign of his recognition that his Nawaz-card no longer exists.

Statements over the coming days from Nawaz & Shahbaz Sharif, Musharraf’s government, and Saudi officials will help structure a more solid account of Nawaz’s deportation. While these details are unsettled–Dawn’s account is by far the more comprehensive–the motives and future implications behind today’s actions are fairly clear.

One, Pervez Musharraf and his inner circle (Tariq Aziz, ISI chief Ashfaq Kiyani, et al.) have decided that it Nawaz Sharif’s presence in Pakistan right now would be unfeasible. Permitting the deposed prime minister back in the country would catalyze a series of unfortunate events for the Pakistani president. Above all, Sharif’s presence would weaken his negotiating position in final-round talks with Benazir Bhutto and provide further motivation for members of his party, the PML-Q, to defect (in most cases, back) to Nawaz’s PML-N.

PML-Q Pres Chaudhry Shujaat stands to be the biggest loser of a Bhutto-Musharraf deal, and that’s why he’s been in talks with Nawaz and publicly opposing the potential accord. In fact, he recently tried to discredit it, stating that the “goras” (white people — i.e. Americans) are the ones pushing for it. His message: the Americans are choosing our leaders; this deal is being made in Washington and in Washington’s interests–not Pakistan’s.

And so what Musharraf has sought for, at the very least, is a few more days to seal his deal with Benazir, who will announce her date of return to Pakistan on Friday. The imminence of the Bhutto-Musharraf deal pushed Nawaz to return before Benazir. Her negotiations with Musharraf shattered Sharif’s All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM). His only card left was to confront Musharraf directly by flying to the capital, Islamabad, before the conclusion of a power-sharing agreement between his two rivals.

Musharraf’s government attempted to nominally comply with the Supreme Court ruling forbidding the prevention of Sharif’s return to and stay in Pakistan. Their position is that they let him come in the country, stay (albeit for four hours), and then he left on his own accord. Sharif’s supporters have taken their case to the Supreme Court, which will consider the legality of Sharif’s deportation. Should the court rule in Nawaz’s favor, Musharraf can potentially still win. Keeping Nawaz out for this week can give him the necessary window to complete a deal with Benazir and settle things with his current PML-Q allies. The second coming of Nawaz would then be anti-climactic, with the party over and the cake eaten.

In an alternative scenario, the High Court can rule in Nawaz’s favor and Musharraf would then go on an extra-constitutional path to stay in power by declaring emergency rule. Odds of him choosing this path would be radically higher should negotiations with Bhutto collapse for good. Prospects for Pakistan’s stability would also collapse as Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency would actually create a state of emergency.

Like Pakistan’s previous military rulers, Musharraf’s ‘corrective movement’ would reverse, leaving the country in a shape worse than before his rise to power. The legacy of Musharraf–once popularly seen as an anti-corruption crusader, a straight-talker, liberal nationalist, and apolitical executive–would then be characterized by the perception of him being an autocratic, American lackey, drunk on power and surrounded by corrupt figures like the Chaudhry Duo.

The prospects for such a scenario are real and induced to a large degree by American support. Vice President Cheney has ensured Musharraf of Washington’s complete backing — and the message was confirmed on Saturday by Richard Boucher. Much like Nixon’s ’tilt toward Pakistan’ policy, Cheney is behind the Bush administration’s ’tilt toward Musharraf’. And so while the State Department admits that Sharif’s deportation “runs contrary to the Supreme Court ruling,” an NSC spokesperson describes it as “an internal matter.” That’s like calling spousal abuse a private, not criminal, matter. Another Bush administration official says that the moves against Sharif are “not necessarily the worst thing that could happen.”

As we stated in a previous post, Washington sees Sharif as a nuisance, if not a threat to its objectives in Pakistan. Ahmed Rashid concurs, writing, “Nawaz Sharif is not part of the American script for the war on terror and the future of Pakistan, written by mandarins in the US State Department. He is considered neither fish nor fowl, too close to the fundamentalist mullahs and too unpredictable.”

Sharif is a business baron-politician motivated not by ideology, but power and profit. His rise to power in the early 90s was through an coalition with Islamists engineered by Pakistan’s intelligence services. And in his second term, he used Islam to maximize his executive power and punish his opponents. But Sharif is no Islamist ideologue. His political usage of Islam was largely the product of its availability and efficacy. His major political foe was a left-leaning female. Now his major opponent is a military dictator — and Sharif, ushered into power by the ISI, is now rallying against the military’s role in politics. Politics is marked by both pandering and philandering. Sharif, like any politician, can only capitalize upon the opportunities availed to him.

And so a better strategy for Washington would be to make it politically advantageous for Sharif to side with the more liberal lot in his country. But instead, it is pushing him and his supporters away toward a harder right, nationalist and Islamist bloc. In doing so, it makes anti-Americanism more entrenched, furthers political polarization, and ruins Pakistan’s best chance to attain consensus-driven structural governance reform. The Bush administration’s Musharraf policy might result in some decisive wins against al-Qaeda in Pakistan-Afghanistan next year, but Pakistan’s polity will continue to fracture, and a new Pandora’s Box will be opened.

Washington and Nawaz Sharif’s Return to Pakistan

Pakistan International Airlines flight 786 has just taken off from London’s Heathrow Airport heading toward Islamabad. Sitting in its business class is exiled, deposed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Should things go as planned on his side, Nawaz will have returned to Pakistan Monday morning local time for the first time in seven years.

The Musharraf government failed in preventing Sharif’s departure for Pakistan. The Supreme Court ruled that Sharif had an “inalienable right” to return and stay in his country. Yesterday, Lebanon’s Saad Hariri and Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz came to Islamabad and called on Sharif to complete the remaining three years of his 10-year exile deal. Sharif replied that he originally made an oral agreement for a 5-year exile and consented to a subsequent 10-year deal on paper only after receiving assurances the time period would be reduced.

Musharraf’s remaining options are far messier. He can:
- prevent the flight’s arrival in Pakistan;
- re-route Sharif’s flight to a more isolated city in Pakistan (e.g. Peshawar);
- arrest Sharif and jail him in Attock, detain him in Murree, or deport him to another country;
- or not interfere with Sharif’s movement at all.

Without a doubt, Musharraf’s challenging Sharif’s flight arrival in Islamabad will eerily resemble Sharif’s handling of the general’s flight to Karachi, which allegedly helped precipitate Musharraf’s coup.

The path chosen by Musharraf remains to be seen, but what can be said with some certainty is that it will have considerable endorsement from Washington. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher met with Musharraf yesterday. The visit was days earlier than scheduled and made without the knowledge of many senior Pakistani officials. There is speculation in Pakistan that the Bush administration is against Nawaz’s return. This view will receive significant validation should Musharraf take a hardline against Nawaz on Mondaytwo days after the visit of a senior American diplomat and three days after the State Department called for restraint by Sharif and Bhutto without offering the former support despite Islamabad’s threats against him.

Why would the Bush administration want Nawaz out of the country—at least for the time being? The simple answer is that Sharif’s return poses the greatest challenge to the Bhutto-Musharraf alliance, encouraged by Washington, which sees it as a liberal bulwark against a rising militant and anti-American tide in the country.

A Bhutto-Musharraf alliance leaves Nawaz Sharif, as well as many in the king’s party (PML-Q), in the cold. Their best remaining option could be to create a counter-alliance, much like Sharif’s ISI-backed Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) of the 90s, of rightists, nationalists, Islamists, and other assorted anti-Musharraf characters. Together, they can create a political alliance that, along with an increasingly assertive judiciary and civil society, can challenge the bases of Musharraf’s hold on power and potential deal with Bhutto. Not only would such a movement put Musharraf’s tenure at risk, it would also discredit Bhutto and her fellow liberals, push Pakistan toward greater instability, and place Washington’s interests in the country at serious risk.

In fact, Bhutto’s fear of being discredited by an increasingly unpopular and volatile Musharraf might prevent her from finalizing a power-sharing accord with the Pakistani president. Negotiating with Bhutto has caused a strong backlash within her own party and watered down her democratic credentials. Her strongly pro-American and anti-terror talking points in U.S. may also come to haunt her in Pakistan, where she might be seen as an American lackey like her potential partner, “Busharraf.” She could decide in the coming days against a deal with Musharraf in order to salvage her political career. Should she do that and fail to come to terms with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s polity could head toward greater fracture and instability.

Washington’s hope in a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance is misguided. What Pakistan really needs is an accord that unites all of its elites and power-brokers on a transitional governance framework and a national agenda facing the country’s many problems. Its promotion of a deal between Benazir and Musharraf has largely been quiet and behind-the-scenes, but is a badly-kept secret. And its silence on Nawaz’s return speaks loudly, casting a negative light on its policy toward Pakistan and discrediting a liberal agenda in the country.

Washington cannot play favorites among Pakistan’s politicians. That’s the prerogative of the people of Pakistan. Such behavior counters Washington’s interests in the country anyway by discrediting pro-American figures and making anti-Americanism even more mainstream and a political rallying point. Washington should let Pakistan’s institutions and power brokers settle its crisis of governance, giving a friendly push toward a broad consensus including friends and foes. This seemingly passive strategy ensures that its friends are in power, rather than out on their asses.


Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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