An American hand
Washington is pressing General Musharraf into deals he can't deliver, writes Graham Usher in Islamabad
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Pakistani activists of the Jamiat Ulama Pakistan Nafaz-e-Shariat shout slogans as they march behind effigies of US President George W Bush and other American political leaders during a demonstration in Lahore
Friday, 27 July, was another day in the Pakistan capital. In the morning Islamist protesters clashed with police outside Islamabad's Red Mosque, opened for the first time since an army siege last month killed more than 100. In the afternoon a suicide bomber ran into a police cordon, killing 13. And at night news came that Pakistan's President-General Pervez Musharraf had met exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi about a possible power-sharing deal.
Rarely have the multiple crises assailing Pakistan surfaced so visibly at the same time. But as troubles swirl like a monsoon around Islamabad, commentators are increasingly agreed on their causes. One is that Pakistan's military regime -- eight years after it was installed by a coup -- is starting to unravel. The second are the contortions of Pakistan's role in the US "war on terror".
And it's the war that overshadows all else. Since army commandos captured the Red Mosque from Islamist militants on 10 July, 230 people have been killed, mostly in Pakistan's tribal, "Talibanised" regions bordering Afghanistan. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz says the violence is a "reaction" to the Red Mosque showdown that the government "predicted, expected and is dealing with". Tribesmen from the borderlands say it is due to the army reneging on a peace deal signed with the Taliban last fall.
American commentaries suggest the tribesmen are right. On 5 August, The Washington Post reported that Musharraf had been persuaded to "abandon his truce with tribal leaders" on the bases of US intelligence showing Taliban and Al-Qaeda's "retrenchment" in Northern Pakistan. Nor was only persuasion used. Throughout June, dozens of tribesmen were killed by NATO-US Special Forces attacks inside Pakistan.
Such US violations of Pakistan sovereignty are likely to continue, whether the administration is Republican or Democrat. Addressing a Washington think-tank on 1 August, Democrat presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, said, "it was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an Al-Qaeda leadership meeting (in the tribal areas) in 2005". George Bush had reportedly called off the raid for fear of the hurt it would cause Musharraf domestically. Obama feels no such compunction. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," he said.
Bush is more kid-glove in his treatment of "buddy" Musharraf. But it is the same American fist beneath the glove. On 3 August he signed into law a bill predicating US military assistance on Pakistan "making demonstrated, significant and sustained progress towards eliminating support or safe havens for terrorists". For an army that receives a cool 300 million a month in US dollars that is a blade just above the jugular.
It's unclear what "significant" progress the Pakistan army's renewed offensives in the tribal areas have brought, though the Washington Post quotes officials lauding a reduction in cross-border Taliban infiltration into Afghanistan and improved Pakistan intelligence sharing. Pakistanis speak of 200 soldiers killed.
But it is clear the incursions have made a mockery of Musharraf's attempts to win hearts and minds among tribesmen. On 3 August the tribal agency of North Waziristan observed a "black day" in protest at army operations, which, said locals, have killed not militants but "dozens" of civilians. The next day tribal elders from the same region said they were boycotting a Pakistan-Afghanistan grand jirga on 9 August intended to bring peace to the borderlands. "When our own homes are unsafe how can we put out fires in other people's houses?" said one.
An American hand is also behind the Musharraf-Bhutto meeting. The rendez-vous was shrouded in mystery, with both leaders at pains to deny that anything has been finalised. But, broadly, the deal involves a trade in which Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) supports Musharraf for another presidential term while he drops corruption cases against the Bhutto household and allows her to return to some kind of active political life in Pakistan.
It is easy to see why Washington would want such a marriage. With his popularity in freefall, Musharraf needs all the local support he can muster. And the PPP is not only secular at home and pro-American abroad it remains the most popular national party in Pakistan politics. Bhutto's reasoning is less clear. She lost her father to one military dictator and has spent the last eight years being Pakistan's most vocal campaigner against another. Former PPP member and analyst, Shafqat Mahmoud, says her embrace is born of exhaustion. "She thinks only an arrangement or a deal [with the army] will get her back into power."
A year ago many would have welcomed the Musharraf- Bhutto rapprochement. But times change. In March Musharraf sacked Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, triggering off a lawyer-led protest movement that snowballed into a massive political campaign against military rule. Last month Pakistan's Supreme Court rendered Chaudhry's suspension "illegal", in deference to public opinion as much as due process. And, on 3 August Chaudhry, as reinstated chief justice, ordered the release on bail of opposition leader Javed Hashmi, sentenced by the regime in 2003 for "defaming the army".
Many believe -- and hope -- Chaudhry will deny Musharraf's desire to remain army chief of staff and be re-elected president by existing assemblies rigged in his favour. Bhutto says she will respect the judgement of the Supreme Court. Musharraf may not.
For now, in the turbulence of Pakistan, only one thing is clear, says Munir Malik, head of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association and a leader in the campaign for Chaudhry's reinstatement: if Musharraf and Bhutto strike a deal in the defiance of free and fair elections for a new, civilian leadership of Pakistan, there will be mass protests against them. "It's better to be the A-team of the people rather than the B- team of the military," he told a packed meeting in Karachi on 4 August.