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The Nawaz Sharif Factor

aaj_tv_uncle_sam_elections_1.JPGPakistani public opinion data released last week by the International Republican Institute (IRI) strongly indicates that U.S. efforts to facilitate a Pervez Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto power sharing deal are backfiring and necessitate revision.

Talks between Bhutto and Musharraf have been going on for months with persistent encouragement from Washington, including regular involvement by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and periodic interventions by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. A deal between the two, which is virtually complete, would join Pakistan’s most powerful institution, the army, and largest political party, the People’s Party (PPP), in a fight against rising militancy.

Rather than securing a liberal alliance, by overstepping its bounds and excluding former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Washington has helped bolster rightist, anti-American parties and lower the popularity of Bhutto and Musharraf.

Pakistanis oppose U.S. interference in their democratic transition. They resent Washington’s choosing of sides in their upcoming elections—made blatant by its (at the very least) tacit approval of Musharraf’s deportation of the exiled Sharif in September. Washington has wrongly seen Sharif as a conservative threat to the liberal alliance, but closing him out of Bhutto-Musharraf talks leaves him only one card: allying with nationalist and religious parties and making his party Pakistan’s protest vote.

Nawaz Sharif is now Pakistan’s most popular politician. His once dismal approval ratings have skyrocketed in recent months, with Pakistanis forgetting his checkered past. The IRI poll suggests that Sharif’s faction of the Muslim League party (PML-N) could—in free and fair elections—win the popular vote nationally and in Punjab (the largest province), and lead a coalition government with nationalist and Islamist parties in the Afghanistan-bordering Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). A provincial and federal government made up of malcontents and those pushed away by Washington would jeopardize cooperation with the U.S. in areas bordering Afghanistan.

Such a scenario is, however, still avoidable. Parliamentary elections will be held in early January, leaving ample time for Bhutto, Musharraf, and their benefactors in Washington to integrate Sharif into a moderate, centrist set-up. Should their deal survive, Bhutto and Musharraf can secure victory in rigged elections, but the gains will be fleeting and further bolster the opposition (including extremists). Already, a majority of Pakistanis oppose their arrangement, seeing it as an extra-legal measure to clear Bhutto of corruption charges. It’s been a major political blow to both Bhutto and Musharraf; either might decide to jump off a sinking ship.

The submerging of a moderate front against militancy by conservative elements is not inevitable. It can be legitimized and depersonalized by adding Nawaz Sharif into the mix. Musharraf and Bhutto will be able to cut their losses, force Sharif’s party to earn support on their own right—not simply by serving as an alternative—and isolate it from parties further to the right. Bhutto and Sharif will regain shots at winning the premiership, and the latter will be able to mend his relations with the military and Washington. Musharraf can recede to a more secure position mediating between his two counterparts, who slung quite a bit of mud at one another in the 1990s.

aaj_tv_uncle_sam_elections_2.JPGThe Musharraf camp, with the approval of Bhutto and friends in Washington, can offer Sharif, contingent upon his joining a moderate front against militancy: a pre-election return to Pakistan; dropping of court cases against him and his brother (pending judicial review); the ability to run for the premiership for a third time; and leadership of a consolidated Muslim League party.

The records of Bhutto, Musharraf, and Sharif are quite blemished, but at this point, they represent Pakistan’s largest power factions and three of its major ethnic groups. This albeit flawed tri-partite grouping can help put an end to the elite discord that has ravaged Pakistan since its independence. Previous pacts among Pakistan’s ruling class have been incomplete, guaranteeing those excluded to become spoilers.

The in-fighting has helped create a quasi-failed state. A staggering 73% of Pakistanis see their country as headed in the wrong direction. A majority sees itself as less secure and worse off economically than before. A democratic Pakistan with a balance of power between Musharraf, Bhutto, and Sharif, combined with an emboldened judiciary, press, and civil society, can compel Pakistan’s leaders to boldly confront the country’s major challenges, including militancy and poverty. There is much work to be done.

For the Bush administration, entering its final year, a Bhutto-Musharraf-Sharif deal can secure a long-lasting victory for its pro-democracy and anti-terror campaigns. The so-called Arab Spring quickly winterized in part because Washington failed to account for long-standing factional and structural impediments that were country specific. With its Plan A for Pakistan collapsing, Washington can quickly transition to a more sound Plan B that will serve its interests and those of Pakistan’s 160 million people.

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[Op-Ed] Obama, Osama and American Trauma (The Daily Times)

The Daily Times

August 18, 2007

By Arif Rafiq

Pakistan is emerging as a frontline state in yet another war: the battle for the presidency of the United States.

The firestorm caused by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s roundly criticised pledge to violate Pakistani sovereignty should President Musharraf not respond to actionable intelligence concerning Al Qaeda has since subsided. But rather than letting out a sigh of relief, Islamabad should see Obama’s comments as an ominous sign of things to come.

The current US political environment makes Pakistan the ‘perfect culprit’ during high-stress periods in the American “war on terror” and is marked by increased levels of pessimism towards and opposition to the war in Iraq and an imminent, subverted, or successful terror plot against a Western country. A bi-partisan consensus on Iraq as an irreversible failure or a successful terrorist attack on European or US interests could put Pakistan in great difficulty.

There are two reasons for this push-Pakistan dynamic. First, it is easier to go after identifiable targets than an elusive adversary. Plus a thought is precipitating that the Taliban-Al Qaeda lifeline starts in Pakistan. If Pakistan is not effective in stemming the tide on its side, there is no point mopping up the floor in Afghanistan; the US should attempt to turn off the tap and that lies in Pakistan.

Second, it is election season in the US: partisan sentiments are high, terrorism is a major issue, and American voters prefer strength to weakness. Democrats largely favour a pullout from Iraq, but by no means will lay down their guns. They cannot be seen as pusillanimous, so they will replace ‘a war that cannot be won and should have never been fought’ (in Iraq) with the ‘real war Bush didn’t finish’ (in Pakistan-Afghanistan). The Pakistan card is the Democrats’ means to establish their national security credentials.

Republicans might have little choice but to join the chorus. This is an unlikely scenario and dependent on their abandoning Iraq and the easing of US-Iran tensions. The latter possibility would generate interest in and free up resources to focus on Pakistan and a ‘winnable war’.

But the most dangerous is the potential for unilateral action in Pakistan by the Bush administration. It is conceivable in two scenarios. In the first, a legacy-driven Bush administration in its last year in office is desperate to cap the war on terror and needs a ‘decisive’ achievement. It possesses what it believes trustworthy intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri in the northwest of Pakistan. Pakistan’s ruler at the time is politically, militarily, and psychologically unable to act upon the information. Seeing its potentially last opportunity to apprehend or eliminate one or both of Al Qaeda’s top two vanishing, Bush authorises one or more of the following against the high-value target(s): a US Predator strike, capture by teams of US Special Forces, or elimination by a not-so-surgical air strike.

In the second scenario, Al Qaeda successfully attacks the US again and a mix of intelligence, assumptions, and political convenience help Washington conclude that the plot emanated from Pakistan. Not only does the American president authorise actions from scenario one against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, but sees fit and is compelled by political allies, opponents, and public opinion to punish Islamabad diplomatically, economically, and even militarily.

The range of potential punitive actions against Pakistan is wide and the resulting damage even wider. At its worst, Pakistan could be cemented as an economically backward, socially fragmented, politically unstable, militarily weak international pariah for decades.

So what must be done to prevent such a dire outcome? Islamabad must first appreciate that a worst-case scenario is indeed possible. Next, it must take preventative measures to reverse the push on Pakistan trend before it fully takes hold.

At home, it must work to develop a broad political coalition sufficient to decisively eliminate or apprehend those in Pakistan engaged in or plotting terror both within and outside of the country. Additionally, it needs to convince its sceptical populace of the need to confront terrorists militarily. Finally, it should wean the indigenous population of Waziristan from foreign terrorists that have entrenched themselves among them.

In the United States, Islamabad must commit to a pro-active and wide-ranging communications and diplomatic programme to reshape and consolidate elite and popular opinion of Pakistan. More specifically, it should help shape an American political discourse in which calls for unilateral strikes in or punitive actions against Pakistan by credible individuals are inconceivable.

Pakistan’s diplomats work most effectively with their American executive branch counterparts, but are ill-equipped to deal with the broad spectrum of actors involved in a potential push-Pakistan policy. The Pakistan Foreign Office must select appropriate internal and external talent to liaise with leading Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns; relevant members of Congress and staffers; editorial boards, news and opinion writers for key newspapers and major mainstream and partisan magazines; Middle East and South Asia experts in the US think tanks; hosts of major cable news and talk radio programmes and elite bloggers.

Islamabad must figure out how to ensure that its perspective is processed through the vast political machinery in Washington — the vast community that makes things happen. It can no longer afford to simply speak to the man at the top, especially since he is close to leaving.

Islamabad can take heed from its counterparts in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, who in recent years each tasked a young, media-savvy diplomat (versed in American, not British English) with speaking before the US media. The Saudis’ rocky road post-9/11 was softened by the smooth-talking Adel al-Jubair.

Additionally, the Pakistani government should invite each major presidential candidate and their foreign policy advisors to meet with senior political and military leaders. Briefings with top Pakistani officials and secure tours of areas close to the Pak-Afghan border will also help greatly in making these candidates understand the complexity of the situation. This would be timely and critical as US politicians’ perspectives on Pakistan are remarkably undereducated and fluid.

Lastly, Islamabad should also consider periodically embedding major print and electronic American journalists with Pakistani military units along the border with Afghanistan. Firsthand glimpses of Pakistani forces in action, combined with meeting families of slain Pakistani soldiers, best display Islamabad’s commitment to combat terrorism.

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Editor:

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

For Media and Consulting Inquiries:
E-mail // Tel: +1(202) 713-5897

On Twitter:
@PakistanPolicy

On the Radio:
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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