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    South Asia
     Feb 21, 2008
Pakistan sifts through election aftermath
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

As the fallout from Pakistan's general elections comes into focus, one enormous question mark has emerged: who will be included in the new government? Some major domestic political players have made hasty, if strategic, retreats from the government-making process and have adopted policies of wait and see.

Meanwhile, Washington has moved to mend bridges between embattled President Pervez Musharraf and the opposition camps in order to preserve its interests in the regional "war on terror". Analysts believe that if Islamabad is gripped by further political turmoil, and if Musharraf exits the corridors of power, the US-led operation could flounder.

"We shall prefer to sit in the opposition and would rather provide

support for the issues of national interest instead of making any bid to be a part of any set-up," Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, secretary general of the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q), told Asia Times Online. "I think there are a lot of issues where any future set-up needs our support, especially in the 'war on terror', and we would provide our support while sitting in the opposition benches."

The ruling PML-Q, the main ally of Musharraf, emerged from elections in third place - with 41 national assembly seats out of a possible 272. Independent sources maintain that PML-Q's strategy to distance itself from the new government is the result of backroom maneuvering by US officials which lasted all of Tuesday. Washington was reportedly surprised by the election results and pondering how to preserve the US-led terror campaign amid new political developments.

Indeed, the results have made for some strange bedfellows in the new parliament. For example, former premier Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf - a longtime Western ally - could be together in opposition, but working against each other, and their disagreements, along with the inclusion of an as-yet-undecided incoming president, could leave the "war on terror" hamstrung. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) secured the second largest number of national assembly seats with 67. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was the winner with 87 assembly seats.

Before the vote, well-placed Pakistani security sources told Asia Times Online that the Pakistani and US militaries were planning to launch an operation, and that American military officials had been discussing it at Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi.

"The purpose of the operation is to carry out a comprehensive operation with precise attacks on the militant hideouts in the tribal areas. The American presence in Pakistan has only two limited goals. They are equipped with hi-tech intelligence equipment, and second they would provide training to our troops to make better use of this equipment. However, they would not take any active part in the operations," a senior security official told Asia Times Online. Nevertheless, he admitted that for purposes of surveillance and coordination American officials may accompany Pakistani troops during the operation but in no way would take part in any direct strikes in Pakistan.

Now, Pakistan's fragile political situation suggests that the operation may be put on hold, giving valuable time for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to regroup for a spring offensive. Such a campaign may occur as early as April. After all, militant-led violence in Pakistan postponed the elections. The government was forced to accept the militants' conditions in haste and only concluded a peace deal with militants in North Waziristan last week.

"Military withdrawal was begun only a day before the elections, which is the only benefit of this election. Otherwise Musharraf, [PPP co-chairman Asif] Zardari and Nawaz Sharif would not make any difference in the US-led 'war on terror'," Khalid Khawaja, once a close aide of Osama bin Laden, told Asia Times Online when asked for his expectations of the election process.

Washington could revive the weakening pulse of its "war on terror" operations with rapid overtures towards Zardari. US officials on Tuesday upped the political ante by informing Sharif that Washington doesn't support his demand for restoring the judiciary as an essential condition for forming a coalition government.

Sources said Zardari, the widower of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, visited the US embassy on Tuesday afternoon and met with US officials. Sources maintained that the US is working on a scenario in which the PPP would form a government with a coalition of smaller parties such as the six-party religious alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the Muttehida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pashtun sub-nationalist party, and the Awami National Party (ANP), as well as independents and moderate leaders from tribal areas. The US is pushing the former ruling PML-Q to support the government from opposition and continue the US's "war on terror" policies.

"We are ready to cooperate with the next set-up because any government will have tough challenges ahead. The year 2007 was the year when our government was forced to take tough decisions - the Lal Masjid operation and operations in Waziristan - and as a consequence we lost the elections," said former Pakistani information minister Senator Mushahid Hussain in an interview with Asia Times Online.

According to sources, the political wrangling took place at a important gathering of politicos - including elements of the the establishment and close confidants of Musharraf - which lasted until 11 pm on Tuesday. A journalist was allegedly sent to Zardari to convey Musharraf's assurances that the process of government formation could begin without the participation of Sharif. Sources said that Musharraf's missive presented himself as head of the state and chief of the national security council in order to ensure the role of the armed forces in the key policy decisions of the country.

The PML-N is quite aware of the challenges it faces, especially concerning the "war on terror". Although Sharif maintained in a press conference on Tuesday that the PML-N would take steps in terror operations according to national needs, he also said that joining any newly formed government may damage the credibility of the party. With this in mind, the inner circles of the PML-N are aiming to abstain from the early formation of government and maintain a wait and see policy from an opposition perspective.

So far, no political party has come forward to join the PML-N's demand for the restoration of the judiciary - even ANP, the majority winner in the North West Frontier Province, categorically denied that this was their issue. More important to the ANP is provincial autonomy.

Washington officially applauded the election process in Pakistan, which it termed transparent, among other praises. At the same time, however, the US has grave concerns that the vulnerability of a new government, or its unwillingness to cooperate with the US, could spell doom for the "war on terror".

"I suggest that political parties should demand that until Musharraf's resignation they would not take the oath in the parliament. Because, if they take the oath, it means they legitimize Musharraf's presidency," said retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who has recently played a major role in organizing Pakistani veterans' groups to demand retired general Musharraf's resignation.

Gul was optimistic that the present vote against Musharraf and his allies was a vote against American domination of the region. He expressed hope that eventually mass support would push Islamabad to abandon all military operations in tribal areas.

"Americans cannot do anything if we stop the operations in tribal areas. If they stop military aid, they are welcome to do so. We don't need military aid. All we need is economic aid and they just cannot afford to stop it. Why? Because all NATO supply lines pass through Pakistan and if they stop economic aid, Pakistan can stop supply lines which would end their regional war on terror theater once and for all. This is the biggest crime of Musharraf - that he could not understand the strategic value of Pakistan in the region and could not exploit it," said Gul.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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