As if the Bush administration didn’t have enough foreign policy problems with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recent Russian invasion of Georgia. Now here’s old ally Pakistan trying to make the transition from military ruler Pervez Musharraf to some form of uncertain democratic rule as Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents are more active than ever in border regions, the country’s economy has gone south, and the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal is in question.
Jane Perlez writes in The New York Times: “A day after their unified effort ousted President Pervez Musharraf, the two major parties in the governing coalition fell into disarray on Tuesday when they failed to agree on the restoration of the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The instant deterioration in relations became evident when Nawaz Sharif, the leader of one of the parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, walked out of a meeting here and headed back to his home in Lahore, a four-hour drive away. Party members said Mr. Sharif had delivered an ultimatum to the senior coalition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, to consent to the return of the chief justice, Ifikhar Mohammad Chaudhry within 72 hours, or the Mr. Sharif’s party would leave the government. Mr. Chaudhry was among some 60 judges suspended by Mr. Musharraf last year.”
Perlez quotes politicians as saying that opposition to Musharraf “may have been the strongest thread tying them (the opposition leaders) together. … Still, the situation did not bode well for future stability, with Pakistan facing a sharply declining economy and an emboldened Taliban insurgency that is fast moving past its sanctuaries in the tribal region and reaching into other parts of the country.”
In search of new allies
In an earlier dispatch, Perlez points out the problem for the U.S. and the West in fighting the insurgency and keeping the lock on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal: “Administration officials will now have to find allies within the fractious civilian government, which has so far shown scant interest in taking on militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda who have roosted in Pakistan’s badlands along the border with Afghanistan. At the same time, suspicions between the American and Pakistani intelligence agencies and their militaries are deepening, and relations between the countries are at their lowest point since Mr. Musharraf pledged to ally Pakistan with the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Among the greatest concerns, senior American officials say, is the durability of new controls over Pakistan’s nuclear program. Though Pakistan has been through far more abrupt political transitions than this one — through assassinations, a mysterious plane crash and coups — this is the first since it amassed a large nuclear arsenal.”
Pressure on ‘junior partner’
Other reporters express similar concerns. Candace Rondeaux, writing in The Washington Post, quotes Pakistani author and terrorism expert Ahmed Rashid as saying the new government likely will remain “a junior partner” to the military. “Yet it is the government, not the military, that is likely to face criticism at home and from its international allies. ” ‘There’s going to be enormous pressure on the civilian government from the American administration to get their acts together, to show that they can confront militancy in Pakistan,’ Rashid said. “It will be a test of the coalition, which I think will fall apart.’ “
Jason Burke, a correspondent for The London Observer, writes: “With Pakistan it is always tempting to emphasize the chaos, not the continuity. In fact, Musharraf’s departure may change less than one might think. The international community has already factored his political demise into calculations. The option from Washington and London’s perspective is bleak: the unimpressive heirs to Benazir Bhutto, or the Pakistan Muslim League leader, Nawaz Sharif, who is far from a natural friend of the West. One or the other will be able to force through their candidate as president in a coming election. “… But at least the military are back in their barracks. Another cycle of civilian-soldier rule is over. Perhaps this time, with the help of the international community, Pakistan can achieve a fragile democratic stability and defeat its internal demons. Perhaps.”
And some experts believe that Musharraf’s exit presents a chance for the U.S. to redeem itself in Pakistan. National Public Radio‘s Corey Flintoff quotes Selig Harrison, head of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, as saying that Musharraf played the U.S. “like a fiddle.”
“For one thing, he says, the Pakistani leader never removed elements from his intelligence services that were working against the effort to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. When Musharraf did cooperate with the U.S., Harrison says, he often made the situation in Pakistan worse, as when he ordered his intelligence services to cooperate with the CIA in the ‘rendition’ of terrorist suspects. Such actions, Harrison says, stirred widespread anger among the Pakistani population and helped trigger a wave of anti-Americanism. Harrison says Musharraf’s resignation should allow the U.S. to let that anti-Americanism die down and to ‘shut up and do absolutely nothing but respond to initiatives from the new government.’ “
Anti-American sentiment persists
Anti-Americanism has been quite high, according to opinion polls. Kamran Rehmat, a news editor at a Pakistani television station, writes: “The continuing terror war has led to great upheaval within Pakistan, making Musharraf intensely unpopular. In an opinion poll conducted last month by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a non-profit group based in Washington, 83 percent of Pakistanis said they wanted Musharraf to resign immediately. His job approval rating also slipped to an all-time low of 11 percent.”
And despite the concerns of Western diplomats, Musharraf’s departure was greeted as a positive mood among the Pakistani populace.
NPR‘s Philip Reeves reports: “On the streets, few mourned Musharraf’s departure.
” ‘For the last years he has been ruling the country, and he’s been no good to it,’ said a banker who would give his name only as Ahmed. ‘So I think it is better that he has resigned and it’s over now.’ “
For a timeline of Musharraf’s role in Pakistan, go here.
Doug Stone is a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV.