COMMENTARY
 
Boucher’s Parleys with Bhutto in Dubai
Weekly Pulse
June 20-26, 2007
Since 9/11, Pakistan has been the most crucial destination for top US dignitaries, including vice president, secretaries and assistant secretaries of state and defense, Congressional speaker and members, and Centcom chiefs. The objective has always been the same: securing Pakistan’s cooperation as a frontline state against religious extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan and the region.

While the underlying objective behind recent visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Jon Negroponte and Under Secretary of State Richard Boucher was the same, its principal focus appears to be ensuing domestic political stability and continuity of policy in an election year in the country.

An unstable Pakistan is the last thing Washington would wish to happen amid mounting regional challenges vis-à-vis the war on terrorism. As the country prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2007, the United States would wish to have a regime where all of the moderate political figures and forces could coalesce as a counterpoise to religious extremist elements and their terrorist manifestations at home and abroad.

Meeting with Bhutto

No surprise, therefore, that prior to his sojourn to Islamabad this time, Under Secretary of State Richard Boucher met Pakistan People’s Party Chairperson Benazir Bhutto in Dubai, during which they were able to develop an understanding about the need for creating a moderate political front in Pakistan. Mr Boucher appeared to be confident about her commitment towards politically contributing to the goal of securing an alliance of moderate and progressive forces in the country.

It is important to mention here that it was only after this Dubai meeting that US Deputy Secretary of State Jon Negroponte decided to visit to Pakistan, and the same could also explain why Boucher extended his own stay in the country to be with Negroponte in the Pakistani capital.

Since the start of the judicial crisis in March 2007, editorials and media reports in the United States had been indicating an erosion of US support for President-General Pervez Musharraf. US President George Bush’s remarks about democracy in Pakistan at the recent G-8 summit in Germany were cited as a reference for a possible US policy shift vis-à-vis the Pakistani leader.

The United States has all along been saying that it would like to see free and fair elections in Pakistan—a policy that essentially remains unchanged if one goes by the remarks that both Negroponte and Boucher have made before the media. Insofar as the tricky question of uniform is concerned, Negroponte left it to be decided by President Musharraf himself.

It is, however, clear that the Bush administration still considers President Musharraf’s leadership crucial for winning the fight against extremism and terrorism. What the Americans seem to be essentially trying currently is to explore possibilities for a coalition of moderate political forces to emerge out of the forthcoming election process in the country.

Bringing Moderates Together

The talk of a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto has been going on for the past year or so. Both of them are committed to a moderate and progressive Pakistan. The charges of corruption against Bhutto, which predate the 1999 coup, have been a major obstacle to this deal, besides Musharraf’s publicly pronounced stand not to let corrupt politicians come to power in Pakistan again.

However, throughout this war on terrorism, already in its seventh year, it was always an irony that Bhutto, who represents a mainstream political party with an unquestionable commitment to fighting religious bigotry, did not get the opportunity to contribute to this fight. During this time, the US Republican Party government also preferred to deal with President Musharraf alone and showed no interest in reaching out to key political figures such as Bhutto against whom there were charges of corruption.

Since last year’s Democratic Party assertion in US Congressional politics, however, the Bush administration has started to soften its stance, and explore alternative avenues for overcoming mounting challenges in the war on terror—whether they pertain to the situation in Iraq, especially vis-à-vis the role of Syria or Iran, or domestic political challenges in frontline counter-terror allies like Pakistan.

The US-led war in Iraq will determine the course of US presidential elections next year, and if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, as it has since the March 2003 US invasion, a Democratic Party victory in the 2008 US presidential elections should be a foregone conclusion.

The current US move to bolster moderate political forces in Pakistan must, therefore, be seen in a broader context denoted by developments in domestic politics in the United States and mounting challenges concerning the war on terror perceived by the US policy making establishment.

Despite the past political enmity between Musharraf and Benazir, both unquestionably constitute the two premier moderate personalities of Pakistan. That is what the US perception also appears to be. The key challenge for Washington, therefore, is how to being the two leaders, between whom there is so much distrust and lack of confidence, to a compromising settlement.

Only the United States is in a position to resolve the differences between the two. It is not so much a question of public perception about the American factor playing a principal role in Pakistani politics. Even Bhutto herself has stated that Musharraf is a moderate leader. She has also frequently publicly sided with the United States in its fight against religious extremism and terrorism, implicitly telling the Americans that she is willing to play a role in this war on Pakistan’s behalf.

Musharraf’s Re-Election

In the US perception, Pakistan is playing a central role in this international war. At a time when challenges in this war are mounting, especially as the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan gains momentum and the situation on Iran’s front takes a serious turn, Washington would like to see a politically stable and militarily strong Pakistan.

Despite consistent US expressions about Musharraf-led Pakistan “not doing enough” in the war on terror, the Bush administration has always appreciated President Musharraf’s role of moderate leader. Therefore, it would wish, at least for the continuation of counter-terrorism policy, for Musharraf to get re-elected, preferably without uniform.

Given that, the real issue at this stage is not President Musharraf’s re-election, but whether he will be elected by the present assemblies or the new assemblies after the general elections. The President’s current political allies, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid PML (Q) would wish he sought re-election from the present assemblies. That is the only way its leaders can remain relevant to the country’s political scene.

This may be legally possible, but, if we are talking about a post-general election scenario where Musharraf, Bhutto and other moderate political figures come together, then seeking re-election from the present assemblies will erode Musharraf’s moral credibility.

A re-election from the next assemblies, with a pre-electoral compromise with the PPP led by Bhutto would also help Musharraf to dissociate himself from a politically bankrupt force such as the PML (Q), which has come out to be Musharraf’s greatest political liability, despite the role he has personally proclaimed to have played in its creation.

Towards Next Elections

If an American-negotiated compromise between Musharraf and Bhutto is already in the offing, then the most likely scenario would be the early dissolution of present assemblies, perhaps in early July on Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz’s request. What sort of caretaker governmental setups at the Centre and provinces are created should be a part of this compromise.

The current judicial crisis will also lose momentum as the focus of the political forces will shift on the election campaign. The holding of free and fair elections should mean the PPP led by Bhutto and other moderate forces might gain the required majority to form the government at the Centre and a majority of the provinces.

Additionally, as part of the compromise, Bhutto also has to agree to a prime ministerial candidate, to be nominated by the President, whom she can trust. The 2002 Legal Framework Order, which was approved by the Parliament in the form of the 17th amendment, bars Bhutto to occupy the seat of Prime Minister, as she has held that position twice before.

It is only through a two-third majority vote that this restriction on her can be undone. But this is an issue that can come up after the next elections, and that also if the PPP led by Bhutto secures wither two-third majority victory, which is next to impossible, or she is able to secure the support for the purpose from her moderate coalition allies.

The Uniform Issue

Lastly, there is this question of the uniform. Constitutionally, President Musharraf can retain his uniform until the end of this year. The President has not made any categorical statement in this regard so far. Whether he does that during the course of the election campaign for the next general elections, if the assemblies are dissolved early, or after the elections, is unclear now.

A politically stable Pakistan, led by a moderate President and a moderate Prime Minister and his/her political allies—where the two premier leaders of this political dispensation, Musharraf and Bhutto are committed to fighting religious extremism and terrorism—should be in America’s vital interest.

Such an electoral outcome should also be in the interest of Pakistan, where public aspirations for a political change have reached their zenith. If “the rules of the game” are clearly chalked out between the forces guarding security interests of the state and the powers representing people’s aspiration for greater freedom, then 2007 may turn out to be a year for Pakistan coming out of an increasingly uncertain political climate, retaining its leadership position in the comity of nations and developing itself economically and socially.