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    South Asia
     Nov 6, 2007
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Pakistan shakes off US shackles
By M K Bhadrakumar

The pervasive impression is that the impending judgement by the Supreme Court regarding the propriety of President General Pervez Musharraf's re-election as president of Pakistan for another term prompted the timing of his decision to impose emergency rule last week. The temptation to view the developments in Pakistan through the prism of democracy is almost irresistible.

But democracy is not even a sub-theme in the current world of

realpolitik in Pakistan. At best it forms a miniscule part of the story. What emerges beyond doubt is that Musharraf's move enjoys the support of the top brass of the Pakistan armed forces. Significantly, he signed the proclamation on emergency rule in his capacity as the chief of army staff rather than as the president. He has thereby signaled that the Pakistan armed forces as a whole are backing his move.

It is on occasions such as this that the incomprehensible alchemy of the US-Pakistan relationship fleetingly surfaces. Clearly, it stands to reason that Musharraf took care to consult Washington and Britain before announcing his move. But what was the nature of these consultations?

Musharraf spoke to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday, hardly hours prior to the proclamation of emergency rule. Britain was the prime mover of the Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto rapprochement. Musharraf kept in view the need to assuage British feelings.

Equally, Admiral William Fallon, commander of the US Central Command, was on a visit to Pakistan, and he actually happened to be in the general headquarters of the Pakistan armed forces in Rawalpindi when Musharraf was giving the final touches to his proclamation on emergency rule. The political symbolism was unmistakable.

US reluctantly acquiesces
Fallon did his best to "dissuade" Musharraf from going ahead with his plan, but had to ultimately give in. Fallon apparently warned Musharraf that future American aid for his beleaguered regime might be in jeopardy if the US Congress took a negative view of the rollback of civil liberties in Pakistan. If so, it is obvious that Fallon failed to impress the tough Pakistani top brass. Equally, Musharraf estimated Washington has no choice but to support his regime for the foreseeable future.

This wouldn't be the first time that the generals in Rawalpindi have done their homework as regards their corporate interests and proceeded to set aside Washington's unsolicited counsel. Time and again in Pakistan's history it has appeared that the unequal relationship between the US and Pakistan is far from a one-dimensional tie-up. It would be a mistake to regard Pakistan as a mindless American proxy - which is part of the reason why China and Russia have an abiding interest in that country.

A famous instance arose when, as the then deputy secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration, Strobe Talbott, narrates in his book Engaging India, his desperate pleas with the Pakistani leadership not to emulate India in exploding a nuclear device in 1998 were simply ignored by the Pakistani generals.

A decade earlier, another Pakistani military strongman, General Zia ul-Haq, simply refused to toe the US line to agree to an Afghan settlement that Washington had worked out with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which would have restored Kabul's traditional neutrality in the geopolitics of the region. Zia insisted Pakistan's influence on a future regime in Kabul ought to be predominant.

Thus, in retrospect, it turns out that the former prime minister Bhutto's abrupt departure for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates last Thursday against the advice rendered by most of her party leaders happened just in time when it dawned on the US and Britain that despite their strong urgings, the generals were hell-bent on the imposition of emergency rule. The US and Britain counseled her to get out of harm's way and quickly leave the country.

The initial statements of "regret" by the Western capitals, especially Washington, need to be taken with a pinch of salt. To be sure, the US policy toward Pakistan finds itself in a cul-de-sac. Musharraf's move coincides almost to the hour with the thundering speech by President George W Bush at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, on Thursday in which he blasted the US Congress for failing to take his "war on terror" not seriously enough, and he went on to compare Osama bin Laden to Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Lenin.

Addressing his neo-conservative acolytes, Bush came back to his favorite theme that via his "war on terror", he was actually waging a global war for democracy and freedom. He compared Islamist "plans to build a totalitarian Islamist empire ... stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia" to the Third Reich. He claimed that US-led campaigns have "liberated 50 million people from the clutches of tyranny" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush said the people in the Middle East are "looking to the United States to stand up for them".

Alas, we knew only a day later that just as Bush was speaking, one of his staunchest allies in his pet global war was squashing democracy and freedom. The US doublespeak becomes all too apparent in the mildly reproachful comment over Musharraf's move, bordering on resignation, by the US spokesmen. It indicates that Washington's dealings with the Musharraf regime will continue and normal business will resume once the dust has settled down.

Military ties intact
The statement by the Pentagon spokesman is particularly important for the top brass of the Pakistani armed forces. The spokesman said the development "does not impact our military support for Pakistan ... Pakistan is a very important ally in the 'war on terror' and he [Secretary of Defense Robert Gates] is closely following the fast-moving developments there".

Traditionally, it is the opinion of the Pentagon that matters most to the brass in Rawalpindi - and not the perspectives of the State Department or readings by the Central Intelligence Agency. As long as the Pentagon's support remains intact, as is the case presently, Rawalpindi will be pleased, and Musharraf will continue to enjoy the support of the corps commanders.

At the moment, Musharraf is not looking much beyond the endorsement of the emergency rule by the top brass of the Pakistani armed forces. He doesn't care for his popularity ratings in Pakistan. And, conceivably, he wouldn't be particularly flustered by the international reaction either. Musharraf has assessed that the worsening situation in Afghanistan leaves the US with hardly much choice in the matter other than working with the regime that he chooses to head.

Developments in the western Afghan province of Farah (bordering Iran) and the southern province of Kandahar have taken a particularly serious turn lately. The US failed to extract any increased troop commitments at the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers meeting. German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her first-ever visit to Kabul on Saturday flatly refused to deploy German troops in the volatile southern provinces of Afghanistan. The new government in Tokyo has cut back on Japan's involvement by stopping refueling of US ships servicing the war in Afghanistan. The new government in Poland is reviewing its association with Bush's war.

No need of US advice
Thus, Musharraf knows that the US dependence on him is only likely to deepen in the coming weeks. Besides, Musharraf has succeeded in underscoring in Western capitals that he is the anchor of "stability" in Pakistan. No matter the actual ground reality, he has succeeded in projecting a perceived threat from militants. (The international community has no independent means of verifying these threat perceptions either.)

To a degree, even the reaction by New Delhi - a mild statement of "regret" and a pious hope that "normalcy" will return soon - is an acknowledgement that Musharraf has maintained an overall climate of peace and tranquillity as well as a degree of predictability in relations with India. Western capitals are quite aware of the extreme fluidity of the situation but are literally forced to suspend their disbelief in Musharraf's claim as the guardian of Pakistan's stability. What choice do they have?

In the short term, therefore, Musharraf doesn't have to look over his shoulder any more or listen to irritating Western hectoring

Continued 1 2 

Musharraf faces up to an emergency (Nov 2, '07)

Pakistan in new Taliban peace process (Oct 30, '07)

1. Level 3 storm about to hit Wall Street

2. Crisis of opportunity for Iran and the US

3. The ticking of the oil clock

4. Roots of the Kurdish struggle run deep

5. Double-crossing in Kurdistan

6. Musharraf faces up to an emergency

7. China's balancing act: Guns vs rice

8. Leave, or we will behead you

9. The art of the possible

( Nov 2-4, 2007)


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