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    South Asia
     Aug 20, 2008
US faces up to life without Musharraf
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Sixty-five-year-old Pervez Musharraf's biggest problem now is to decide where to spend his retirement years; in Pakistan, which he has dominated politically for nearly nine years, or in exile, far from the madding crowd he would leave behind him.

For Musharraf's erstwhile supporters in Washington, the search has already begun to find a replacement for the man who in 2001 dramatically reversed his country's alignment to make it a key player in the "war on terror" and made himself an indispensable component of the US's policies in the region.

That usefulness ran its course and, bowing to the inevitable, Musharraf on Monday resigned as president: "I eventually decided

 

to quit without creating a fuss, in the supreme national interest." Indeed, Musharraf had become a part of the problem, rather than the solution, and he had to go: this was the clear message from the US and his political foes in Pakistan, who had begun proceedings this week to have him impeached.

Musharraf seized power in October 1999 in a bloodless coup, and ruled with an iron fist through tumultuous years that saw Pakistan first abandon its traditional Taliban allies in Afghanistan, paving  the way for their ouster from power in the US-led invasion of 2001, and then itself become a hotbed of Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy in the tribal areas and beyond.

The seeds for Musharraf's demise were sown in March last year when he suspended Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Chaudhry's defiance mobilized a lawyers' movement to defend the judiciary and also emboldened Musharraf's political opposition.

In November, Musharraf, as chief of army staff, imposed a state of emergency and sacked the judiciary before the Supreme Court could rule on the legality of his re-election as president.

He then shed his uniform, and under a Washington-brokered deal tried to put the country back on a democratic path by holding general elections in February. His party (Pakistan Muslim League - Qaid) was trounced, leading to the establishment of a coalition government headed by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

"Musharraf had lost his utility as a useful asset for the 'war on terror'," retired general Hamid Gul, a security analyst and former director general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), told Asia Times Online.
"The Americans had been putting pressure on Islamabad since February for him to get its act together against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and Pakistan's foreign minister [Shah Mahmood Qureshi] and Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, always told Washington that the government could not move forward independently because of Musharraf," Gul said.

"Hence, Musharraf was politely told by Washington through various channels to gracefully resign, but he remained defiant and ultimately Washington pulled its support of him and the ruling coalition moved for his impeachment, which forced him to resign," Gul said.

Pakistan's constitution does not provide for a vice president, rather, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, the senate, currently Mohammad Mian Somo, becomes caretaker president until a new one is chosen by an electoral college, a process that could take up to three months.

Steadfast until a few days before his emotional resignation speech, Musharraf was believed to be planning to dismiss the provincial assemblies and dissolve parliament, something he was empowered to do under the constitution.

But Asia Times Online has learned that he was clearly informed by his former subordinate and now army chief of staff, General Asfaq Parvez Kiani, that the military would stay neutral and not intervene in the political process; that is, Musharraf would be hung out to dry by his former constituency.

"The army will play the same role it played from 1996 to 1998," Gul said, without elaborating. What he meant was that the military will maintain an independent and strong policy on Afghanistan in which the political government has no role or its role is restricted to giving political support to the military's operational policies.

"The American role has always been paramount in Pakistan's politics. The late General Zia ul-Haq was defiant of Washington's interests and he faced an accidental death [in a mysterious plane accident in 1988]. Had Musharraf tried to exercise [his constitutional powers to dissolve the assemblies], he would also have been obstructing American interests in the region and would have faced a Zia-like fate," said retired spy master Gul, who was in charge of the ISI at the time of Haq's demise.

"Now the Americans will have to use the two remaining national assets for their interests - the political parties and the army chief [Kiani]. Washington abhors Nawaz Sharif, so they will distance themselves from him and focus on Asif Zardari [the widower of Benazir Bhutto and head of the PPP].

"Zardari, because of corruption cases [that have been leveled against him] can be easily manipulated and therefore he will act obediently on their advice," Gul maintained, adding that the crucial role is that of the army chief, so the Americans will focus on him. "I suspect that Kiani is already part of their game."

Who's for president?
The jockeying for president has begun in earnest. Bilawal Zardari, the son of Benazir Bhutto and PPP chairman, said in the southern port city of Karachi that Musharraf's replacement should come from the PPP.

The PML-N counters that the person will be chosen through mutual consultation, while independent observers say that Asfandyar Wali Khan, the chief of the Awami National Party (ANP), which governs North-West Frontier Province, is the man for the job.

If Musharraf's exit was a part of the American game, the US needs to make sure that its third asset in the country, along with the political parties and the military, is close to Washington.

Asfandyar fulfills this criterion. He is a grandson of "Frontier" Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, whose family has always been close to Delhi and Kabul and he would be the best connection in helping shut down the war theater in Afghanistan. As a Pashtun nationalist, he and his party are opposed to the Taliban.

Asfandyar was a flagbearer of the red revolution in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but he switched sides soon after September 11, 2001, after he visited the US under an international visitors' leadership program.

In 2006, he was again invited to the US for talks on the US's anti-terrorism policy and he visited Central Command headquarters for briefings. But the most significant visit was in May this year, after the important February polls that ushered in a civilian government, when Asfandyar spent time with officials at Central Command in Tampa, Florida, as well as a week in Washington meeting top State Department officials.

This is believed to have been in preparation for his new role in the Pashtun lands that span Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Pashtun areas controlled by the Taliban-led insurgency in these countries.

Gul comments, "Yes, he could be the one, but Asfandyar failed to uphold his promised role to control militancy in the tribal areas without [resort to] military operations. During the period his party [ANP] has governed North-West Frontier Province, military operations have been conducted in Khyber Agency, Bajaur [Agency] and South Waziristan.

"In my opinion, Nawab Attaullah Mengal, a Baloch politician, should be the president of the country, given the recent mistreatments done in Balochistan province in the name of military operations," Gul said.

A taste of things to come
The few weeks before Musharraf's exit witnessed a major military operation in Bajaur Agency on the border with Afghanistan's Kunar province to root out al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Such operations are not new in the troubled tribal areas, but this one was characterized by heavy aerial bombardment, eventually forcing the Taliban to pull back. They had targeted the agency to disrupt the flow of supplies into Afghanistan to support the Western coalition there.

"There was no reason to use such brute force in a tribal area like Bajaur," said Gul. Compared to North and South Waziristan, where militancy is deep-rooted, the terrain is much more hospitable in Bajaur.

"The only reason for such military action was to destroy the Taliban's approaches to Kunar, where American forces are all-out to get the Taliban. Kunar province lies in the northeast [and connects to Kabul]. Previously, the Taliban were focused only on southeastern provinces," Gul said.

"This is the role Washington wants the Pakistani army to play. The cost is paid by Pakistanis and 250,000 people were displaced during the Bajaur operation," Gul added, pointing to the fact that in terms of security issues, especially those relating to Afghanistan, Pakistan is still joined at the hip with the US, for which it has since 2001 received over US$10 billion in aid and military equipment.

As Musharraf heads in the next few days to Saudi Arabia to perform umra (pilgrimage), and a possible life in exile - he is, after all, a prime al-Qaeda target - he can only contemplate whether his successor will be any better in balancing these US needs with Pakistan's own interests.

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 (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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