Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Dec 1, 2007
Page 1 of 2
The Sharif factor comes into play

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 took 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 fortnight

earlier, 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 this month.

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 specter 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 Wednesday, 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 eulogizing 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 about 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 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 destabilize the existing political order in Islamabad. 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 with the ruling party PML (Q) but isn't averse to defectors from the "King's party" joining his ranks. The APDM on Thursday 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 Thursday 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 Thursday 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 Thursday that Phase 3 of his program 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 favor 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 president, prime minister and 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 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 

Continued 1 2 

Baptism of fire for Pakistan's army head (Nov 30, '07)

How you helped build Pakistan's bomb (Nov 29, '07)

1. If Iran's Guards strike back ...

2. Baptism of fire for Pakistan's army head

3. A language for the world

4. The cold comfort of
economic collapse

5. Selling the US by the dollar

6. How you helped build Pakistan's bomb  

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Nov 29, 2007)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2007 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110