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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

Pakistan : Re-emergence of Nawaz Sharif

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by M K Bhadrakumar


The United States is watching with anxiety Pakistan’s painful march towards democracy, and it does not like the look of it. The return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan has completely altered the political calculus and taken Washington by surprise.

By insisting on Sharif’s return to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia took matters into its own hands. Washington should have read the signal that something was stirring in Riyadh when, a fortnightearlier, the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan made an characteristic public display of intervening with President General Pervez Musharraf for the release of the former Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Hamid Gul, from detention under the draconian state of Emergency provisions imposed on November 3.

Gul is no ordinary mortal. He has an impeccable record—both as a serving Corps Commander and as a retired General—of campaigning for Pakistan’s destiny within an arc of Islamic countries stretching from Afghanistan to Turkey. He has consistently advocated strategic defiance of the United States. Twenty years ago, he co-authored a strategic rethink (“regional strategic consensus paper”) while serving as the ISI chief under President Zia ul-Haq, preparing Pakistan for its post-Afghan jihad phase when the US was set to drop it as an ally.

Gul is a staunch believer in the “Islamic bomb”. Of course, that was also the time in the late 1980s when Pakistan was considering the outright “sale” of a nuclear bomb to Saudi Arabia to rid itself altogether of the irksome dependence on American aid, apart from arranging the supply of Chinese long-range CSS-II nuclear-capable missiles to Saudi Arabia. Gul is an untiring believer in the jihad. Some say he once personally took Osama bin Laden to meet Nawaz Sharif.

Rise of Islamist Nationalism

Yet, Washington didn’t take note when Musharraf acceded to the Saudi request for Gul’s freedom. The promptness with which the Saudi wish was accommodated by the Pakistani establishment should have alerted the US.

Unsurprisingly, the spectre that is haunting the George W. Bush Administration is whether the baton of the democratic transformation of Pakistan will pass into the hands of conservative nationalist Islamic forces instead of the “moderate liberals” (read Benazir Bhutto) chosen by Washington. Bush admitted his personal sense of frustration when he told the Associated Press: “I don’t know him [Sharif] well enough.” Regarding Sharif’s links with Islamic parties in Pakistan, Bush added: “I would be very concerned if there is any leader in Pakistan that did not understand the nature of the world in which we live today.”

Sharif, on his part, point-blank refuses to acknowledge Bush’s recent efforts to bring about Pakistan’s democratic transformation. He would recall his association with President Bill Clinton and stress he didn’t know Bush. On November 28, Sharif touched on Bush’s “war on terror”. Referring to the military crackdown in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Sharif said Islamabad ought to think before complying with the demands of foreign powers. He caustically added: “This is our country, and we know better how to solve our problems.”

Sharif estimated his remark would find good resonance in Pakistani opinion. Senior unnamed US officials, in turn, have leaked to the American mainstream newspapers—including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle—the Bush administration’s disquiet that Sharif might spoil the “war on terror”.

They paint Sharif as a conservative politician who connived with Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear proliferation and hobnobbed with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and argue that he stands in the way of the emancipation of Pakistani women. They cherry-pick from Sharif’s tumultuous political life and find fault with him for just about everything that went wrong in Pakistan in the recent two-to- three decades. But that is grossly unfair. There is almost nothing that Sharif did while in power at which Bhutto didn’t try her hand.

The Bush Administration squirms that its techniques of political management failed to work with the formidable Pakistani establishment. The rapidity of the unfolding of political events in Islamabad has left Bush with no option but to keep eulogising Musharraf’s leadership qualities—even as the General systematically rubbished Bhutto’s political prospects. Maybe an apocalyptic vision of a Sharif-led Pakistan may help justify the Bush Administration’s continued support of Musharraf.

Washington’s demands today have virtually narrowed down to a lifting of the Emergency rule in Pakistan—something that Musharraf is in any case getting ready to do. In fact, Musharraf has no more use for the Emergency rule now that he has overcome the judicial challenges that threatened to prevent him from becoming a civilian President. He remains obstinate only in his refusal to restore the pre-November 3 judiciary that he sacked. But that is understandable. The political parties themselves are divided on the issue.

Sharif’s Options

SECTIONS of the Pakistani establishment keenly expect Sharif to unify the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) factions to thwart any residual chances of Bhutto’s bid for power. They seek a repetition of the broad alliance on the pattern of the IJI (Islami Jamhuriat Itehad, or Islamic Democratic Alliance) of 1988, which was an alliance of the PML and Islamic parties with the help of the military and the ISI. The point is: even though Sharif may have a bitter feud with Musharraf, that doesn’t diminish his acceptability to the Pakistani establishment, for whom he still remains a former ally.

Arguably, Sharif’s natural inclination ought to be to settle for a deal with the military-intelligence establishment. But these are early days. Sharif is probing. He is grandstanding. He is reconnecting with his support base in Punjab. He is weighing what is there in the elections for him. Will his candidacy be accepted since he stands condemned by court judgement? The Constitution debars him from becoming the Prime Minister for a third time.

Meanwhile, some elements have been clarified. First, Sharif may not resort to agitational politics. He could easily be a rabble-rouser, but the Saudis wouldn’t want him to do anything by way of stirring up things that threatened to destabilise the existing political order in Islamabad. The Saudi interest lies not in undermining nuclear-armed Pakistan but to be able to navigate it if the gyre of Shi’ite Iran’s influence continues to widen in the region.

Again, Sharif continues to view Bhutto with distrust. Sharif is keen on the PML functioning within a united front under the banner of the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM), but he can’t ensure the alliance’s cohesion, especially the Islamic parties. The ISI used to handle such matters for him previously. He also rejects an outright merger of his party (PML-N) with the ruling party (PML-Q) but isn’t averse to defectors from the “King’s party” joining his ranks. The APDM on November 29 announced a boycott in principle of January’s parliamentary polls (Bhutto did not), but that is not necessarily the end of the matter.

Within this code of conduct, it is not surprising Musharraf has concluded he could learn to live with Sharif’s hot words as long as the elections go ahead as scheduled. Musharraf reiterated on November 29 soon after being sworn in as the civilian President that he is determined to hold the elections on January 8, “come hell or high water”. The big question is: whether the main political parties will participate. The legitimacy of the polls would ease pressure on Musharraf from the international community.

The powerful head of the PML-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, and his cousin and Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi (who was until recently perceived to be the next Prime Minister) have hinted that a post-election understanding with Sharif cannot be ruled out. Sheikh Rashid, who is close to Musharraf, said: “You cannot rule out anything in Pakistan. If Musharraf can meet Benazir and if Nawaz Sharif can return to Pakistan before the elections, then everything is possible.”

Musharraf himself hinted at the horse-trading that lies ahead when he hoped politicians wouldn’t repeat the 1990s’ political culture. He held out a sort of olive branch when he expressed the hope on November 29 in front of a distinguished audience in Islamabad that he “personally” thought that Sharif’s return to Pakistan would “prove good” for the country.

Musharraf vs Kiani

MUSHARRAF also announced on the same day that Phase 3 of his programme of democratic transition has commenced. Clearly, the speculation hogging the current discourses over Pakistan—as regards the inevitability of a clash of personalities involving Musharraf and the newly appointed Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani—completely overlooks the obvious reality that these two protagonists are virtually joined at the hip in the post-election scenario in Pakistan.

Their core interests are inextricably intertwined. The Pakistani Army can never hope to get a President anywhere as deeply committed as Musharraf for safeguarding its corporate interests. As for Musharraf, who lacks an independent political base, he would be intelligent enough to know the limits to his presidential authority.

At any rate, the last thing a quintessential soldier like Musharraf would do would be to bypass the military’s interests in favour of “civilian supremacy”. Historically, the nearest that the military could manage to reach by way of an entente cordiale with the presidency within the framework of Pakistan’s ruling troika—comprising the President, the Prime Minister and the Army Chief—was when the bureaucrat par excellence, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, took over in the dramatic circumstances following Zia ul-Haq’s death in a plane crash in August 1988. But Khan still needed to ingratiate himself with the then Army Chief, General Aslam Beg.

Musharraf and Kiani go back a long way. That is to say, the extent to which the military has gone to ensure that Bhutto doesn’t become part of the troika in Islamabad, as was the case 19 years ago, must be put in its proper perspective. Musharraf and Kiani pursued a common agenda after determining what is best for Pakistan’s political stability. The military has successfully thwarted Washington from imposing Bhutto on the regime. An IJI-type ruling alliance would serve the military perfectly well at this juncture.

Regional Implications

THE regional and international implications are going to be far-reaching. If the US strategy, under the garb of creating a “truly democratic” regime in Pakistan, was to create a troika in Islamabad that would be amenable to its manipulation, things haven’t quite worked as expected. Pakistan’s Army will remain the dominant force in the country’s national life. But the US would have to continue to renegotiate Pakistan’s cooperation for the “war on terror”.

The new Army Chief shares Musharraf’s basic outlook and, more important, shares Musharraf’s limitations in partnering with the US against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Washington cannot afford to damage its equations with the Pakistani military by threatening to cut off aid. Don’t even threaten violation of Pakistan’s territorial integrity by the US Special Forces. The US would do well not to push the military unwillingly into clashes with their own tribesmen, either.

The US will be compelled to factor in with greater sensitivity the Pakistani military’s adversarial stance with regard to India, which also includes its widespread resentment about the inconstancy of American friendship and, more recently, the perceived US tilt toward India as its preferred strategic partner in the region. At some point, Washington might well be compelled to review its refusal to enter into nuclear cooperation with Pakistan on the pattern of its proposed deal with India.

India on Guard

ANY diminution of Washington’s ability to influence Pakistan’s Kashmir policy or its covert trans-border activities aimed at bleeding India would cause uneasiness in Delhi. In recent years, Delhi drew comfort imagining Washington effectively kept the Musharraf regime in check from raising tensions with India. There is even a body of opinion among security analysts in Delhi that continued, open-ended American military presence in Afghanistan is a good thing as it makes Musharraf more forthcoming in dealing with India. To them, the “war on terror” in Afghanistan is of importance as the Americans shackle the Pakistani military.

Delhi would also take note that for the first time, a former chief of the ISI, the agency that calibrates tensions with India, has risen to the top of the military. Kiani has had extensive experience in dealing with India in various capacities—as Director General of Military Operations during the standoff with its neighbour following the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, as the General Officer Commanding having under him the Pakistani Army’s 12 divisions based in Muzaffarabad, which is the staging ground for the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, and as the ISI chief.

The Taliban Will Gain

To be sure, the hardening of the power structure in Islamabad is taking place at a time when some sort of a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban is on the cards in Afghanistan.

One could disregard the international policy think-tank Senlis Council’s latest assessment that the Taliban have a permanent presence in 54 per cent of Afghanistan, controlling “vast swaths of unchallenged territory, including rural ones, some district centres, and important road arteries”; or its assertion that the insurgency is exercising “a significant amount of psychological control, gaining more and more political legitimacy in the minds of the Afghan people”. Even then, it is difficult to quarrel with the assertion by the reputed London-based group that “the question now appears to be not if the Taliban will return to Kabul, but when ... and in what form. The oft-stated aim of reaching the city in 2008 appears more viable than ever.”

Therefore, if a democratically elected IJI-type representative government assumes power in Islamabad at the present juncture, that would work greatly in the Taliban’s favour. Such a government would include political leaders who have had extensive dealings with the Taliban in the 1990s. Equally, such a government might not see eye-to-eye with the US’s way of conducting the “war on terror” in Afghanistan or with the overall American approach that “there is almost no problem across the region that can’t be resolved by bombing” (to quote a British commentator).

The shift in Islamabad may prove particularly crucial at a time when there are signs that President Hamid Karzai himself might be beginning to wonder in his own way if there could be an Afghan solution to the war. Karzai must surely begin to weigh the high probability that the next government in Islamabad would be rooted in Islamic nationalism. The US (or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) would lack the capacity to block any political accommodation that such a representative civilian government in Islamabad might seek with the Taliban, be it at the local or at the national level. In sum, the political developments in Islamabad in the coming weeks could well accelerate the return of the Taliban to Kabul. Karzai would be sensing that already.

Saudi Motivation

CONCEIVABLY, Saudi Arabia’s insistence on Sharif’s return was at least partly motivated by its skepticism over the efficacy of the democracy project choreographed by the George W. Bush administration for Pakistan. The Saudis, with their prodigious memory, would recollect what another democracy project by the Jimmy Carter Administration led to in neighbouring Iran—the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Besides, Saudi Arabia feels disillusioned by the bloody mess that the Bush Administration’s “war on terror” has created in the region. The criticality of the Afghan situation is worrisome as Saudi national-security concerns are directly affected. Riyadh estimates that the time may have come to seek an Islamic solution to the crisis. (Turkey’s Islamist President Abdullah Gul was in Islamabad on December 1 within a few weeks of Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to Ankara.)

Saudi influence will be predominant on any IJI-type government in Islamabad. The Saudi calculation would be to work toward a political accommodation of the Taliban as a step in the direction of isolating the radical elements, which have gained ascendancy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions.

US Must Rethink Strategy

IN sum, the Bush Administration’s ill-conceived scheme to bring about a transitional partnership between the Pakistani military and the “political centre” has floundered. The US pursued its partnership project even when it became apparent that the military wouldn’t cohabit with Bhutto. The result was a near impasse.

The Saudis stepped in at that point and a new transition strategy attuned to Pakistani realities has begun to unfold. Much as the Pakistani military understands the strategic imperative of keeping a working relationship with the US and realises that anything else would be catastrophic for Pakistan’s interests, it is also incumbent on Washington to reconcile that there are limits beyond which it cannot push the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Equally, Washington must accept that Islamic nationalism is a permanent feature of Pakistani national life. The West cannot impose its clones on Pakistan’s democratic life. There is a high probability that Nawaz Sharif may turn out to be the future of Pakistan.

Indeed, there were past occasions when Washington was much less than fair in its attitude toward Sharif. Washington’s weakness for Bhutto is legion. Allright, Sharif’s entire university education might have been restricted to Lahore and he might not be networking with highflying think-tankers in Washington; he might not have shared his toothbrush with Peter Galbraith or wasn’t on first-name terms with Zalmay Khalilzad, the high-profile US ambassador.

Sharif might not have thought it important enough to hire talented public relations firms to burnish his “image” in the US media. But, even then, the Bush Administration should not remain sulking that Sharif wasn’t its choice for leading Pakistan’s democratic transition. Life must move on. Besides, it is the Pakistani people’s choice that should matter.

Robert Oakley, who served in the Ronald Reagan Administration as the National Security Council’s Pakistan hand during the Afghan jihad in the 1980s and subsequently served as ambassador in Islamabad, wrote that Washington must prepare to come to terms with Sharif’s leadership of Pakistan. “He [Sharif] commands a strong following and, most important, has traditionally been strongly supported by the Pakistani military and intelligence services,” Oakley concluded.

Oakley suggested that Washington should facilitate discussions between the military and civilian leaders on appointing a senior civilian to serve as the interim President, replacing Musharraf. “An interim President could then prepare for truly free and fair elections and a return to the rule of law.” In essence, he advocates an alibi for Washington to reconcile with Sharif. But unfortunately, that would also be an alibi for continued American intervention in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

(Courtesy : Asia Times)

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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