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Sun

18

Nov

2007

Benazir vs. Musharraf is Punch vs. Judy
Sunday, 18 November 2007 22:17
by Tony Karon

Shlent was the marvelous onomatopoeic term we used in my student activist days, as verb or noun, to describe the stage managing of an event or process in a manner that allowed its appearance to camouflage a power play. (The sound shlent to me always evoked heavy pieces falling smoothly into place.) And I can think of no better term to describe the bogus “showdown” we’re being sold involving Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In fact, appearances aside (although they camouflage very little), it’s plain that Bhutto and Musharraf are still involved in an elaborate U.S.-brokered negotiation process to divide the spoils of power in what might be called Pakistan’s Team America. Musharraf’s police may periodically prevent her from leaving her house, but they’re largely doing her the favor of providing her an excuse for refraining from leading her supporters in confrontation with the regime — which she, and her backers in Washington, are very concerned to avoid. Bhutto has not suffered the fate of other opposition leaders, who have been hounded by the security forces and thrown in prison. And her own political awkwardness and hesitation in responding to Musharraf’s moves are a reminder that all is not quite what it seems in the media narrative of a brave and beleaguered civilian democrat confronting a military despot.

The U.S., in fact, pressed Musharraf to make a power-sharing deal with Bhutto, fearful of the fact that the general appeared to have no social base to continue his role as Washington’s gendarme in the region — as mischievously as he often plays it, every U.S. official who has spoken on the matter in recent weeks has affirmed Musharraf’s centrality to U.S. interests. It was not that the U.S. believed in restoring democratic civilian rule per se — the U.S. didn’t raise a peep of protest when the former prime minister overthrown by Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, arrived home from exile, only to be unceremoniously bundled back onto a plane to Saudi Arabia — after first being sternly lectured about his impudence in showing up by two of Washington’s Mideast trusties, a Saudi prince and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri. No, Bhutto was Washington’s anointed civilian political leader, presumably after she managed to convince the Bush Administration that she was a more reliable ally in the “war on terror” than was Nawaz Sharif. And when pressed as to why she continues to talk to the dictator whose ouster she demands, her spokespeople say simply that the U.S. told them to.

Musharraf and Bhutto are both viewed as allies by Washington, the latter enlisted to broaden the base of stability of a U.S.-backed regime in Pakistan. But proxies always have their own agendas, and the precise balance of power between them remains very much in play — indeed, if anything, the current “showdown” is part of their contest over the balance of power in Pakistan’s Team USA.

So Bhutto calls on Musharraf to quit, and Musharraf responds by contacting Nawaz Sharif for a chat. This is like “War of the Roses.”

Musharraf didn’t declare emergency rule because he feared Bhutto’s challenge; he declared emergency rule because the Supreme Court was about to rule that he was not, in fact, legitimately the president of Pakistan, because he violated the constitution by standing for the presidency while in command of the military. And the reason Bhutto appeared to hesitate when it happened was obvious: She has as much to fear from the independent judiciary in Pakistan as Musharraf does. The same judges threatening to strip Musharraf of the presidency had also warned that the amnesty extended by him to Bhutto — absolving her of numerous corruption charges — was also illegal. (And, for good measure, the same judges had also ruled that Nawaz Sharif’s expulsion was illegal.) The last thing Bhutto needs is the rule of law and an independent judiciary in Pakistan, for that would pull the rug out from her deal with Musharraf, put her back in court, and bring her fiercest political rival back into the picture at a moment when she is increasingly vulnerable, politically, by virtue of her alliance with the U.S.

House arrest, if anything, gives Benazir political cover for avoiding the streets. Better for Bhutto to sit out whatever turmoil will come in the weeks ahead, cultivating an image of martyrdom ahead of the elections that Musharraf promises for January (although a Musharraf promise and a dollar will buy you a cup of chai at Pak Punjab on Houston Street). Remember, Bhutto’s party may be the largest single party in Pakistan, but its ceiling is about 30% of the vote. If the Washington-brokered deal is to work, Musharraf, too, needs Bhutto’s popularity to be boosted.

Proxies always have independent agendas; if they didn’t, well, they wouldn’t be proxies. So, the U.S. struggles to get Musharraf to do its bidding — because he has a far keener sense of the requirements of his own survival in a dangerous part of the world, and also of Pakistan’s strategic interests, than do his U.S. interlocutors. And Musharraf struggles to control the Taliban in the same way. The Taliban, remember, was literally created by Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence in the early 1990s, as a proxy force to take charge in Afghanistan and end the chaos there by establishing a monopoly of force in the hands of a Pakistan ally. This was a continuation of the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan policy in the 1980s of using Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to train and recruit jihadis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and also of Pakistan’s pursuit of its own interest to counter the power in Afghanistan of warlords allied with its key regional rivals, India and Iran — i.e. the forces grouped in the Northern Alliance.

Remember Musharraf’s response after 9/11? He sought, as he made clear in a PBS interview and publicly, to salvage the Taliban regime by urging them to hand over Bin Laden. When they refused, he had to accept the war to oust them, although most of the leadership simply went to Pakistan where they operated with relative freedom. But Pakistan could not accept the dominance of the Northern Alliance in Kabul — which the U.S. had been in no position to prevent. (Proxies with their own agendas and all that: Remember how as the Northern Alliance descended on Kabul, how the U.S. had urged them to refrain from entering the city? And remember how much attention the Northern Alliance paid?) So, Pakistan has clearly continued to cultivate the Taliban option for shaping the balance of power in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has always sought Pakistani loyalty rather than Pakistani democracy. General Zia ul-Haq, the military man who overthrew Bhutto’s father, the charismatic social democrat Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a close U.S. ally, ready to do Washington’s bidding in what was to become a hot zone of the Cold War. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA worked with the ISI and Saudi intelligence to create a jihadist infrastructure of support for Afghan insurgents: The Arab dimension of this infrastructure later became al-Qaeda; the Pakistani dimension are the roots of the current Pakistani Taliban and related extremists. The U.S.-backed military assiduously cultivated Islamists as a hedge against the civilian politicians, and found them to be a useful means not only of securing legitimacy for military rule, but also as a proxy force for waging wars not only in Afghanistan, but also against India in Kashmir.

It’s probably no coincidence that Pakistan’s most sustained period of civilian rule came during the 1990s, when the Cold War was over and the U.S. simply had no need for Pakistan or interest in its domestic affairs. The fact that the civilian leadership in this period, both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, was not only incompetent, but also incorrigibly kleptocratic is not a result of U.S. agendas. It may simply be a by-product of decades of authoritarian rule — and Pakistan’s military, itself, is said to own about a third of the economy. Musharraf’s overthrow of Nawaz Sharif was greeted with a shrug in Washington. It was only after 9/11 that Pakistan came back in fashion, and with it the idea of Musharraf as an “indispensable” ally. Yes, it may be true that the extremists that threaten the U.S. also threaten Musharraf. But not in the same way. And nor is that likely to make Musharraf follow the U.S. agenda, for the simple reason that he’s well aware that most Pakistanis take a dim view of Washington’s “war on terror.”

Musharraf has taken the piss since 9/11, both appearing to cooperate with the U.S. — and cooperating substantially, in respect of police work against individual Qaeda elements — at the same time as cultivating other elements of the equation to enhance his own position. And he’s doing the same in the current “showdown” with Bhutto. The sad thing, for the people of Pakistan, however, is that in the U.S.-sponsored Punch & Judy show, the only choice they’re offered is between the general and a discredited political relic. Regardless of the outcome of this particular Punch & Judy episode, democratic stability in Pakistan is not even on the horizon.

Tony Karon is a journalist from Cape Town, South Africa and resident of New York since 1993. He is currently a senior editor at TIME.com (although his writings at Atlantic Free Press and personal blog he does on his own time and is personally entirely responsible for its content, which in no way reflects the views or outlook of anyone else).

Karon has worked for Time since 1997, covering the Middle East, the “war on terror” and international issues ranging from China’s emergence to the Balkans. He also does occasional op-eds for Haaretz and other publications, as well as bits of TV and radio punditry for CNN, MSNBC, and various NPR shows. Karon did an ever-so-brief stint at Fox News (measured in months!) and worked at George magazine in its startup year. Having majored in economic history, he cut his analytical teeth in South Africa in the struggle years, where he worked both as an editor in the “alternative” press and as an activist of the banned ANC. And in that context, his obsession with understanding global events took root, as a means of contextualizing the choices and obstacles faced in the struggle against apartheid.

In 1990/1, he gave up his activist career almost as soon as Nelson Mandela was released, the ANC was unbanned and the regime conceded to a transition to democracy — and a “normality” was achieved in South Africa politics. Karon then went to work in the mainstream media at the Cape Times and the Mail & Guardian Weekly, before leaving for New York in 1993 on what he imagined would be an extended holiday.

A brief research gig at Time Out opened his eyes to the possibilities of working in the U.S. — as well as hooking up to the first connections of the sort of ever-expanding networks that make life in the city possible. What followed was a mad array of freelance gigs ranging from the sublime (television work for Britain’s Channel 4 that involved escapades such as spending three days with the rapper Notorious B.I.G.) to the ridiculous — writing the script for a Geffen Records “rockumentary” on Manowar, an upstate New York heavy metal band, really big in Spain and Greece, whose brief spell in the Guiness Book of records as the world’s loudest band underscored their image of themselves as Norse warriors and Wagner’s true inheritors.

While he relished the professional holiday from the serious themes that had preoccupied his life during the 80s, and the opportunity to explore other interests and passions, he gravitated back to writing about geopolitics. The optimism surrounding the new paradigms of post-Cold War politics suddenly began to recede, and familiar patterns began to repeat themselves. Reading the New York Times on the subway en route to various day jobs, Karon found himself drawn back to the big themes. There were things that needed saying, and he had more to offer than commentaries on the marketing strategies of the Wu Tang Clan.

In the aftermath of 9/11, he found many friends and acquaintances asking me to share private observations about the “war on terror” and related subjects and started mailing those out to a list of friends and colleagues, that just kept growing as they forwarded them to others. And finally, after a substantial hiatus, they’ve evolved into Rootless Cosmopolitian - where he blogs regularly.

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Mohammad Ali Shaikh said:

0
Lahore, Pakistan
Musharraf must declare the assets he has gotten after October 1999. A recent article in DAWN quoting Ayesha Sadiqa has put his landed assets at over USD 10mio. Does it not smack of institutionalised corruption? This in a country where 70mio of the population lives below 2 USD per day. Should civil society be worried that the army and its general are seemingly more into real estate than defence?

there needs to be a fair distance between the presidency and the parliament (and none should be invaded by the army). The “ceremonial” president needs to reside somewhere away form the parliament. The parliament cannot look to be in the foot-hills of the presidency. The Supreme Court should not be thrown in ‘like a spanner in the works‘. It should be a healthy distance from other pillars of the state. The Chief of Army Staff should report to the Secretary of Defence. The Army should have a sole remit to protect our borders, this includes stopping the opium trade from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The Army should not be labelling Pakistanis as extremist or liberals.
 
November 19, 2007
Votes: +0

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