Zal is Asif’s Pal

“Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the United Nations, is facing angry questions from other senior Bush administration officials over what they describe as unauthorized contacts with Asif Ali Zardari, a contender to succeed Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan…

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Rich and John’s Unexcellent Adventure

The big story in Pakistan today was not the swearing in of the new prime minister, but the arrival of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. Their two day visit to Pakistan, coming in the midst of a political transition there and prior to the formation of a cabinet, reflects a sense of urgency in Washington and a desire to influence, if not determine, the makeup and policy positions of the incoming government. Their eagerness has been received in Pakistan as overaggressiveness and was widely criticized.

Today, Negroponte and Boucher met with President Pervez Musharraf, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, soon to be outgoing Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, and Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan. They also met with National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza, People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Zardari and, seemingly for the first time, Muslim League-Nawaz leader Nawaz Sharif.

Accompanying Zardari was probable foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Hussain Haqqani, an adviser to the late Benazir Bhutto and fellow at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, who some speculate will be Pakistan’s next ambassador to the United States. [The PML-N's Ishaq Dar will likely have the unenviable post of finance minister.]

Haqqani met with Boucher a few weeks ago in Washington. He told the New York Times today, “It is clear that the United States recognizes that there is a substantive change of political actors on the Pakistani stage…there is a new sheriff in town…There is a new political order in Pakistan, and Americans have realized that they have perhaps talked with one man for too long and now there is a new political team.” Ahmed Mukhtar, a senior PPP legislator, seemed to emphasize the need for continuity in Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Neither Negroponte nor Boucher spoke to the media after their meetings, reflecting the former’s refrain that the U.S. seeks a long-term relationship with Pakistan.

Sharif, however, provided a mouthful to the Pakistani press. He said he told the senior American diplomats that the time for a one man show in Pakistan has come to an end, the nation’s foreign policy will be produced after parliamentary debate, and that Pakistan won’t become a “killing field” for a U.S. war. Indicating that Pakistan’s foreign policy will change, Sharif also stated that the Pakistani people rejected Musharraf’s policies. He, however, did not provide any specifics of how those policies would change.

Seated with Sharif in the Negroponte-Boucher meeting was his brother, Shahbaz, potential finance minister Ishaq Dar, Nisar Ali Khan, Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Asif, and retired Ambassador Tariq Fatemi. The latter is a senior foreign policy adviser to Sharif and helped draft the PML-N’s election manifesto.

Tomorrow, Negroponte and Boucher will meet with lawyers’ movement leaders Aitzaz Ahsan and Tariq Mehmood, other civil society actors, and defense analyst Talat Masood.

The Negroponte-Boucher visit has been roundly criticized by political commentators and retired diplomats. Former Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokar described the meetings, which took place prior to the formation of a government in Islamabad and hours after the new prime minister was sworn in, as “typical American crude diplomacy” and “heavy handed” interference. He said that Britain or France would not behave similarly.

Some have suggested that Washington asked the PPP not give the PML-N the foreign ministry. Others have also claimed that Washington seeks the inclusion of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) into the governing coalition at the center, presumably as a “secular” party to balance out the PML-N. But if these potential developments do materialize, the PPP also has its own reasons for their realization.

Senior Pakistani journalist Nusrat Javed said that multiple sources have informed him that Negroponte asked Sharif to work with Musharraf as president for five years. Mariana Baabar, another leading Pakistani diplomatic journalist, stated that the Foreign Office in Pakistan asked the State Department to delay the visit until after the government was formed, but their wishes were ignored. However, both Khokhar and another Pakistani commentator, Shafqat Mahmood, opined that the Negroponte-Boucher visit could have been also at the behest of Musharraf.

In the end, the Negroponte-Boucher visit is yet another move by Washington that has widened the gap between it and Pakistan’s opinion shapers and general public.

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Friday Round-Up: Saudi Ambassador Meets Chaudhry; PML Unification; Musharraf Stays in Army House; Election Rigging

The Pakistan government prevented Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from meeting deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. However, it did permit the Saudi Ambassador to Pakistan Ali Awadh Asseri to pay a visit to Chaudhry today.

Asseri likely did not come to deposed chief justice with an olive branch from Musharraf. His visit is the latest of Saudi moves to ensure some political stability in Pakistan.

BBC Urdu reports that the Saudi ambassador offered Iftikhar Chaudhry exile in Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to prevent another judicial crisis in the country. Chaudhry refused the offer, stating that the only solution is a restoration of the pre-November 3rd judiciary.

In an earlier version of this post, I had suggested that the Asseri’s visit is also part of a Saudi bid to restore its good standing with the Pakistani public after taking Nawaz Sharif back in Jeddah. However, its reported offering of exile to Chaudhry is, in the words of Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again. If accurate, the Saudi offer demonstrates their concern for political stability significantly outweighs any interest in Pakistani public perception of the kingdom. Like the September deportation of Nawaz, it is reasonable to believe that the offer comes with the blessings, or even at the behest, of Washington.

Continuing on the theme of the Saudi role in Pakistan, Dawn News reports that a “brotherly Muslim nation”, i.e. Saudi Arabia, is actively urging the disparate factions of the Pakistan Muslim league (Nawaz, Quaid, Functional) to unite.

This move makes sense on its own right. It is in Pakistan’s interest for the PML to consolidate and establish itself as a cohesive, ideologically-sound center-right party that is less personality driven.

But the unification, which would only occur after elections, also serves Saudi interests in checking the political position of Benazir Bhutto.

Pervez Musharraf has decided to keep the Army House in Rawalpindi as his residence. Though he has been president since 2001, he never moved into the presidential residence.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher tells the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the upcoming elections in Pakistan are “not going to be…perfect.”

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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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