Monday, May 01, 2006

US-Pakistan On a Rocky Road

Ahmed Rashid is known for his commonsense analysis of local affairs. His latest take on the current situation is in your Blogger’s opinion spot on.

Pakistan's rocky relationship with US (BBC)

Relations between the US and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government have reached their lowest point since September 2001 when President George W Bush first embraced Pakistan as a critical ally in the war against terrorism.

Gen Musharraf's future political survival depends primarily on finding agreement with Pakistan's disenfranchised secular political opposition before scheduled elections in 2007.

However over the past five years as his popularity has dwindled, Gen Musharraf has also come to depend on support from the US.

Now he needs to strike a new deal with the US if he wants to retain Washington's support to remain as president until 2012

It was clear after the brief 4 March stopover in Islamabad by President Bush that the Americans were not happy and had made several tough approaches to Gen Musharraf.

Those became public on 5 April, when on his first visit to Islamabad, Richard Boucher, the new US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia delivered some stinging demands.

Mr Boucher firmly stressed the need for free and fair elections in 2007.

But he went much further than any other US official when he stressed that the US strongly favoured civilian rule and civilian control over the armed forces.

He said that for Gen Musharraf to continue to be both president and army chief negated democracy.

He also refused to offer any sop to appease Pakistan's concerns about the recent civilian nuclear cooperation deal between the US and India.

And he said the US wanted more cooperation from Pakistan's rogue nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who is under house arrest in Islamabad.

Finally, Mr Boucher insisted that the US would not declare the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), which has led the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan province, a terrorist group.

An earlier US messenger, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman had told the government on 13 March that the situation in Balochistan was "an impediment" to investment in Pakistan.

And just in case the generals may have thought Mr Boucher too junior to make such criticisms, the next day National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley repeated the same message during a speech in Washington.

The military and the government were stunned because the Bush administration had now - in public - committed itself to contradicting almost every facet of US support for military rule that the army has depended upon since 11 September 2001.

An angry Islamabad responded by banning the BLA as a terrorist group on 9 April. It complained that Washington had not informed it properly about the US - India nuclear deal. And it blamed Afghanistan - another key US ally - for stirring the pot in Balochistan and Waziristan, where the Pakistani army is combating Pakistani and Afghan Taleban.

At the same time Islamabad has decided to test Washington's true intentions towards Pakistan, by placing an order for 77 American built F-16 fighter aircraft at a cost of $3.5bn. Such a huge order has to be passed by the administration and Congress.

American frustration has mounted over the past 18 months over Pakistan's failure to rein in the Taleban who have ready access to the main population centres along the Afghan-Pakistan border, including Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province.

The Taleban have now launched a major effort to derail Nato's deployment of over 10,000 troops to southern Afghanistan this summer.

The Americans are also frustrated over the deadlock in Waziristan, where the army appears to have lost control of the countryside to Pakistani Taleban.

Defence and foreign ministers from Nato countries now deploying troops in southern Afghanistan have been to Islamabad to tell Gen Musharraf to deal more forcibly with the Taleban in Balochistan.

They point out that, whereas the US army's major concern was al-Qaeda and getting Osama bin Laden, their priority is dealing with the threats to their troops from the Taleban.

Mounting fears
For Gen Musharraf, the key need is unqualified US support for his re-election as president after the 2007 general elections.

Now it seems that US support is contingent on a free and fair election.

There are mounting fears amongst Western ambassadors and Pakistani politicians that the army and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) are planning another 2002 election, in which the secular opposition leaders were barred from standing and the elections were heavily pre-rigged in favour of pro-army politicians and the fundamentalists.

That has resulted in a lack lustre, discredited parliament, a technocrat prime minister who has no control over the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, Islamic fundamentalists being anointed as the formal opposition and a countrywide increase in Islamic extremism, sectarianism and terrorism.

Now the combined opposition is demanding that, before the elections, the present government and the army step down in favour of an interim government headed by an impartial figure.

They also want a powerful and clean Election Commission, a new voters list and full freedom for all politicians to take part in the elections.

No illusions
What the Americans and many Pakistanis are pushing for, but which Gen Musharraf is resisting, is that he strike a deal with Benazir Bhutto, allowing her secular, anti-mullah Pakistan Peoples Party, full freedom to run in the elections in return for her support for his continuation as president.

Nobody is under any illusions that the Americans are about to dump Gen Musharraf.

Washington still prefers him to anyone else, but they would like to see him become a conventional politician depending on secular parties for support, rather than the extremists he presently relies on.

Gen Musharraf will need to strike a new deal with the US if he wants their support in the critical coming months.

He will need to strike a genuine rapprochement with Ms Bhutto, curb the Taleban in Quetta, open a dialogue with the Baloch nationalists and get tougher with the Islamic parties who are fuelling the militants in Waziristan.

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