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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Paradoxes and Political Intrigue Persist in Pakistan

Developments in Pakistan in recent days further the view for both insiders and outsiders that the country is a perplexing bowl of contradictions and political intrigue.

The Karachi Stock Exchange closed at all-time highs on Monday and Tuesday. Investor confidence boosted due to Pervez Musharraf’s re-election as president (pending the validation of his candidacy), which they associate with future political stability and continuity of pro-growth, liberal economic policies. Their sentiments might be valid in the mid-term, but the next three months, at the very least, will be a roller coaster period for the country—and Pakistan’s securities markets will likely not be as immune to the volatility as they have been before.

On the same day as the market rally, a helicopter escorting Musharraf to Kashmir crashed, killing four individuals. This was also the first day of work for Musharraf’s slated army successor, Ashfaq Kiyani, as vice chief of army staff. Though the president was never in any danger and there is no sign of foul play, the context eerily resembles the assassination of Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. The accident is a keen reminder that a single event of this sort can have a defining impact, but as with Zia’s demise, need not necessarily result in systemic change.

While investors are buoyant down south in Karachi, the country’s northwest has witnessed some of its most severe fighting between Pakistan’s army and local-foreign insurgents. According to the army, 45 troops and 150 insurgents have been killed in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. There have also been significant civilian casualties, with non-combatants fleeing the area. The government has been bombarding insurgents from the air with helicopter gunships and jets. The heightened use of air power markedly differs from the government’s previous ground-oriented strategy, which sought to avoid so-called collateral damage and earning further disfavor of locals. It suggests any number of the following:

  • the army has decided its strong avoidance of civilian casualties has been too costly;
  • patience on its side is wearing thin;
  • there is significant external pressure on Islamabad to bring in decisive results before the winter;
  • or a strategic and/or political (via Bhutto deal) window of opportunity has emerged to enable a forceful confrontation of militants.

Perhaps the army has opted for a Balochistan-like strategy, in which it would deliver strong, decisive blows to the insurgency (costing many innocent civilian lives) and follow up with a heavy infusion of development funds. Large scale, yet short-term violence would be complemented by a vast improvement in quality of life and incorporation/subsidization of local elites. In FATA, these funds would largely come from the 5-year $750 million US aid package and opportunities from its duty-free economic opportunity zone program, and would trickle down to the locals via notables with newly padded pockets.

A critical player in the political solution in FATA will be Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who, despite being in the political “opposition,” has proved to be almost as loyal to Musharraf as the Chaudhries. Fazlur Rahman is epitome of the “siyasi ulema” (political Islamic scholars) Abdur Rashid Ghazi lambasted on national television minutes before his demise in the Lal Masjid compound. The JUI-F should play a significant role in liaisoning between FATA notables and insurgents and the federal government/military. Its role in bringing a death blow to the MMA and APDM will not go unrewarded. The pending dissolution of the NWFP assembly will result in fresh provincial elections that might see MMA factions running on their own tickets, and a final tally that places the JUI-F in a stronger individual provincial position than before.

Recent comments by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, and to a lesser extent Shaukat Aziz, have sought to cast doubt on the government’s sincerity in its deal with Benazir Bhutto and her People’s Party. Aziz boasted of having divided and outsmarted the opposition, which is true, and Shujaat bluntly stated that the government has no intention of following through on its promises to Bhutto — and that it it will, in fact, get political cover from the Supreme Court ruling the National Reconciliation Ordinance invalid.

Shujaat’s comments should be taken with a grain (or bucket) of salt. One, Washington — Musharraf’s greatest benefactor — strongly wants the deal to go through fully. Two, Shujaat stands to lose most from the Bhutto-Musharraf deal. Musharraf’s presidency is essentially set (barring a Supreme Court rejection of his candidacy), but Shujaat’s party has to face off against Bhutto’s in the general elections. Images of him and his cousin appear frequently on Pakistani television screens, with a massive wave of advertisements on private channels (source of funding unclear) hailing the achievements of the governments of Musharraf (“Sub se pahlay Pakistan”) and Pervez Ellahi (“Para likha Punjab”). The Chaudhries may have reluctantly consented to a Bhutto-Musharraf deal, but they will show some feistiness to retain their dominance over Punjab and share of federal power.

The rejection of Shujaat’s statements by a Musharraf spokesperson suggests that the president will have to play a fine balancing act between PML-Q partisan and partner of Benazir. It’s the same kind of lack of partiality the Bush administration has sought to display in recent days vis-a-vis Pakistan (i.e. support for the country, not just one man–Musharraf). Should Musharraf alienate his PML-Q base, one might witness the party distancing itself from Musharraf and veering toward some sort of rapprochement, if not re-consolidation, with the PML-N.

The PML-N offers little in political value without the presence of at least one Sharif brother in Pakistan. As a result, the Musharraf government was keen on keeping the former prime minister out of the country prior to his re-election. Since then, they have expressed resistance to his return prior to general-elections — though it is unclear as to whether this is a reflection of the government’s needs or the wishes of the Bhutto camp.

Nawaz is reportedly to return to London after Eid. If proven to be true, it will indicate that Sharif and family were informed of this upon return to Saudi, as Kulsoom Nawaz made such claims early at that point. Also it would prove to partially explain the Sharif family’s relative quietness in the past few weeks. From London, the Sharif brothers could return to Pakistan between November and post-elections in January. Reports suggest family members will trickle into Pakistan individually. Nawaz’s son Hassan has said his father will return to Pakistan between November 15 and 30. A pre-election return is more likely for Shahbaz Sharif. Odds of a Nawaz return pre-elections would multiply if he got another Supreme Court ruling in his favor. If Nawaz returns after the general elections, he could shake things up if discontent in the PML-Q and with others is high. Alternatively, his return could come after the candles have been blow out and the cake has been eaten.

Najam Sethi has stated that the Bhutto-Musharraf understanding will likely produce a PPP government (and Musharraf presidency) at the center, a PML-Q controlled Punjab with a significant PPP presence, a PPP-PML coalition government in NWFP and Balochistan, and a PPP-MQM coalition government in Sindh.

I think Sethi errs in only noting three political mouths (other than his own) Musharraf has to feed. There’s a four rewardee, the JUI-F. Fazlur Rahman’s deeds on behalf of Musharraf in recent weeks, as well as in the past four years, cannot simply be wishful lobbying. JUI-F will likely play an important role in addressing issues of militancy in NWFP, Balochistan, and FATA. Washington probably recognizes and supports this. Moreover, it makes little sense for JUI-F to have enabled Musharraf’s re-election under the current parliament and the fracture of its political alliance only to be punished with a loss of provincial power.

The JUI-F will likely be a part of the NWFP government at least for the same reasons the MQM will share power with the PPP in Sindh. Both were used to displace the previous ruling party, which necessitates a ‘soft landing’ for them — especially since they’re still useful. The PPP’s Sindh compromise is a concession for power at the national level, though its relations with the MQM will have its share of challenges. Sethi doesn’t seem to give much thought to a PML-Q presence at the national level. Mushahid Hussain and others with the party have proposed the idea of a national unity government. While this remains possible, strong animosities between PML-Q stalwarts and the PPP, combined with Benazir Bhutto’s compromises vis-a-vis Musharraf, will likely prohibit her from entertaining such an idea. Why would she accept a prime ministership already diluted by the troika?

The general elections will be held under the rule of a caretaker government. At this point, there is only pure speculation as to who will be the interim prime minister. Candidates include: Jehangir Karamat, Ishrat Hussain, and Hamid Nasir Chattha. Tariq Aziz and Shujaat Hussain have been tasked with arranging for the interim set-up, but clearly Benazir will have significant input in these matters as they will factor significantly in the outcome of the elections (i.e. free and/or favorable).

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Toward the Finish Line?

The final round of Bhutto-Musharraf talks have taken a turn for the better, with both sides very close to a deal.  Benazir’s assertion yesterday that talks have stalled and her threat of PPP resignations are clear signs of her negotiating strengths.  The former prime minister seamlessly alternates between tough remarks against Musharraf and a more conciliatory approach, often portraying his political allies (i.e. the Chaudhries) as potential spoilers.

Meanwhile, Musharraf has re-emphasized his call for national reconciliation made in August and even called for the inclusion of Nawaz Sharif (which Chaudhry Shujaat has been pushing for).   This confirms our earlier assessment that Musharraf is not expressly against Nawaz’s return, but opposed its September timing.

Nawaz will understandably oppose Musharraf’s ‘suggested’ post-election timing, and not simply on the basis of his legal right to return to Pakistan.   The timing keeps him on the sidelines while the political spoils are being distributed.   Still, Nawaz can find himself a leadership position thereafter if Musharraf takes national reconciliation to heart, by defactionalizing himself, and taking the middle ground between the PPP and a consolidated PML.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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