Foreign Interference in Pakistani Politics
Weekly Pulse
December 14-20, 2007
The past couple of weeks have seen heightened diplomatic activity in Pakistan’s political circles, not to strengthen the country’s relations with the outside world, but to “stabilize” its politics. If US intervention in Pakistani politics was not enough, now we see the envoys from the UK, France, Swedish—the list goes on—openly meeting politicians, holing press conferences, urging politicians not to boycott the elections, so on and so forth.

Among nearly 200 countries of the world, there is hardly any country at relative peacetime today where envoys of other states interfere so much in internal political matters. One of the most respected principles of international law is one state’s non-interference in the internal affairs of another state. Yet, in Pakistan’s case, almost on a daily basis, we see envoys of “influential” foreign countries playing quite an “active” role in domestic politics.

Direct Intervention

Among the foreign ambassadors, US envoy to Pakistan, Ms Anne Patterson has been most active, and one can understand why. In the past couple of weeks, besides several other engagements, she has met both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and not the first time since their return from exile. After meeting Sharif, she called for “the candidates and the people to fully participate” in the coming elections. “For elections to be credible, detained members of political parties and civil society must be released,” she said.

At the same time, French ambassador Regis de Belenet has made headlines after meeting the leader of JUI, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. According to reports, during the meeting, the JUI leader urged the French ambassador to “exert pressure on President Musharraf to lift all bans and curbs and restore the superior judiciary.” For his part, ambassador Belenet told Fazlur Rehman that France wanted to see Pakistan flourish as a “democratic state” and hoped for “transparent polls in the country.”

How could the Swedish and Spanish ambassador have left behind? Ambassadors Anna Karin Enestrom of Sweden and Jose Maria Tobles Fraga of Spain joined the French ambassador in Lahore to “expressed their concern and disappointment” after the government did not allow them to meet Aitzaz Ahsan. They reportedly said, “there could not be fair and free elections after the arrest of political leaders, activists and lawyers.” If this was not enough, Benzair Bhutto took the initiative of holding a series of meetings at her residence in Islamabad with ambassadors of 21 countries, including 18 from Muslim countries to “discuss the country’s political scenario after the formation of a joint committee by the APDM and the ARD to chalk out a Charter of Demands to ensure transparent polls or to boycott the process.” “We do not want to boycott the election process but at the same time, we want a level playing field for all stakeholders in transparent elections,” she was quoted as saying to US ambassador Patterson.

The Muslim ambassadors who met Bhutto included those from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Qatar and Yemen. Later, British High Commissioner Robert Edward Brinkley and Spanish ambassador Graga called on her separately. Benazir met the US ambassador in Islamabad at the ambassador’s residence, stated the press release of the PPP Media Centre in Islamabad.

Foreign Office Reacts

In fact, the situation depicting ambassadors running amok became so embarrassing for the government that the Foreign Office had to intervene, urging foreign diplomats stationed in Islamabad “not to publicly comment on the domestic political situation.” “We have no objection to their meeting with anyone, but diplomats should not make public comments after such meetings. We expect them to follow the standard behaviour and diplomatic etiquettes,” Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said. Strangely, he had no objection to their meetings, which symbolically mean interference in politics at a time when the country is facing a pre-poll political turmoil. The only thing the spokesman wants from foreign diplomats is that they should not give television interviews afterwards.

Obviously, one cannot single out Musharraf for criticism pertaining to foreign diplomatic interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs, since almost every political leader is sparing no opportunity to reach out to foreigners for turning the domestic political situation in his or his favor, thereby making a total mockery of the Muslim world’s only nuclear state.

Musharraf Sets Precedent

Pakistan has been plagued with foreign interference in internal affairs ever since its inception for being a week state, which, in order to combat security threat from India, had to take help from a big power, most the US, which always came with strings attached. However, the sort of intervention by foreign powers in its political affairs that Pakistan has seen in the past eight years of Musharraf’s rule has no precedent in the country’s history.

In fact, after staging the military coup on October 12, 1999, the first international phone call that General Pervez Musharraf reportedly made was to his American friend-in-arms, General Anthony Zinni, the then head of the US Central Command, who at the time was visiting Egypt. He explained the reasons for the coup. General Zinni listened to General Musharraf’s pleas, promising to get back to him after returning to Washington, DC. In April 2006, the General stood next to US President George W Bush in front of the presidency in Islamabad, explaining why Western-style democracy did not suit Pakistan.

In the eight years of his rule, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, Musharraf has been a key US ally in the War on Terror. Bush has patted on Musharraf’s back so many times, and Musharraf has sought advice from Bush so openly and repeatedly that it has become rather impossible for both of them to separate ways. In other words, the US ties with Pakistan in the post-9/11 era have essentially been grounded in Bush’s relations with Musharraf.

American Script

Washington was not satisfied with the performance of his regime in the War on Terror. It was only after Benazir successfully assured the Bush Administration to deliver more proactively in this war that the so-called deal between her and General Musharraf came into the picture. Under the US script, while Musharraf’s civilian presidency will represent the factor of continuity in the War on Terror, Benazir standing on his side as Prime Minister would assure greater delivery in this war effort, one that will meet growing US demands from Pakistan with respect to the counter-terror effort against al-Qaeda, Taliban and their extremist-terrorist affiliates, especially in the strife-torn tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

Bhutto’s arrival in Pakistan, the issuance of National Reconciliation Ordinance and her party’s decision not to boycott the general elections are generally perceived to be part and parcel of the Bush Administration’s future political script for Pakistan. This explains why US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte rushed to the country after the imposition of emergency on November 3, urging politicians to “reconcile” their differences and stay away from a course of “brinkmanship.” He and the US envoy in Pakistan, who visited Bhutto in Karachi as soon as Mr Negroponte left, convinced the PPP leader not to boycott the polls. Ambassador Patterson has since been most active.

Strategic Partnership

One can understand that Washington is giving billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan, and, therefore, it has to have an influence on what the country does or does not do. However, it can also be simultaneously argued that most of the US aid is meant for Pakistan’s counter-terrorism effort. Given that, the Bush administration can justify its criticism of Pakistan’s performance in the War on Terror in the past couple of years, but the aid factor does not give a carte blanche to so flagrantly call the shots in Pakistani politics.

One is not necessarily arguing here that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States is not in our national interest. It is, and we should rather be more proactive and creative in combating religious extremism and terrorism—which has been a long-standing threat to our territorial integrity, even predating 9/11 terrorist events in the United States.

The danger from extremism and terrorism will continue, and, as long as it does, Pakistan should cooperate with the international community, including the United States, to combat it effectively. However, as we move along with the United States and other influential members of the international community in this great cause, we should make sure that the latter stay away from interfering in our domestic political affairs.

Serious Matter

If the interference issue was limited to the US, as a negative outcome of our special ties with Washington, then the matter was not that serious. It is serious because many other states and leaders have joined the race.

The Foreign Office has at least issued a warning to the ambassadors in Islamabad not to issue public statements on matters politically internal to Pakistan. The government has to take a step further in discouraging them from meeting politicians in the run up to the elections, or even in its aftermath. Their conduct should be specifically related to bilateral ties—as it should be the case under the UN Charter.

If slavish mentality on the part of Pakistan’s political and bureaucratic elites has taken sixty years to mature, it will take a longer time for such mentality to change, but there is no reason why a start of sorts for such a happy outcome cannot be made now.