COMMENTARY
 
Salvaging the Deal
Weekly Pulse
November 23-29, 2007
A couple of weeks before coming to Pakistan, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte spoke meaningfully to a US channel, expressing the following wish: “We would like to see Benazir Bhutto standing besides President Musharaf,” both leading a united moderate political front to combat Islamic extremism and terrorism in Pakistan.

This week, when Mr Negroponte spoke to press in Islamabad, there was hardly a change in his position. He said he had “encouraged reconciliation between political moderates”—i.e., Musharraf and Bhutto—“as the most constructive way forward.” He continued: “If steps were taken by both sides to move back towards the kinds of reconciliation discussions that they had been having previously, we think that that would be very positive and could help improve the political environment and pull the political actors back from the atmosphere of brinksmanship and confrontation that appears to have existed in recent weeks.”

The United States was instrumental in encouraging General Musharaf and the leader of Pakistan Peoples Party to reach a controversial deal, which essentially paved the way for Ms Bhutto’s return to Pakistan within days after General Musharraf issued the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO).

However, after Ms Bhutto’s return, the political circumstances in the country have taken so many twists and turns—and so quickly—especially due to General Musharaf’s decision to impose emergency—that the whole American script to create a Musharaf-Bhutto “moderate front” to counter Islamic extremism and terrorism more effectively seems to be in jeopardy.

Backdrop to Deal

Mr Negroponte had assumed the charge of Deputy Secretary of State at the start of 2007, after leaving his previous position as the head of the US National Intelligence. Known as the US intelligence czar, Mr Negroponte had earlier served on two important positions in the Bush Administration, including as US ambassador to Iraq and US ambassador to the UN.

It was under Mr Negroponte’s leadership that the US National Intelligence Estimate was released in February 2007, describing Pakistan’s tribal regions as becoming a safe haven for the re-grouping of al-Qaeda and their extremist affiliates—a development that could trigger Islamist terrorist violence in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Mr Negroponte has also been among Bush Administration’s top officials most vocal on the issue of Pakistan’s failure to “do more” in the War on Terror. His views on the issue have contrasted with rather softer voices coming from, for instance, the US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who, during a debut visit to Islamabad in early 2007, had shown understanding of the complexities going back to the days of the anti-Soviet Afghan war contributing to Pakistan’s inability to meet US expectation in counter-terrorism effort.

This is the essential background to the efforts of Mr. Negroponte, and especially Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher, to bring General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto on the path to reconciliation, compromise their differences and reach a deal. For her part, for the past year or so, Ms Bhutto had been presenting herself before the Bush Administration as a more appropriate leader to effectively tackle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. Her contention was that the reason General Musharraf was not able to meet US expectations regarding the War on Terror was because elements in his administration were sympathetic to the cause of Islamic extremists.

This was an indirect reference to the political allies of General Musharraf, particularly the head of the PML-Q and the government’s religious affairs minister Ijazul Haq, who had tried to scuttle every bid by General Musharraf to fight religious extremism—from removal of religious clause from the passport to amendments in the Blasphemy Act to the security operation against Lal Masjid. In essence, what Ms Bhutto was trying to sell before the Americans was that if she was given a chance to rule Pakistan, she would fill the gap in Pakistan’s counter terrorism campaign, as desired increasingly by the Bush Administration.

It is only after Ms Bhutto’s success in convincing the Bush Administration about her commitment to counter Islamic extremism and terrorism that the American push towards her reported deal with General Musharraf must have come about. Since September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration has counted on General Musharraf as a key US ally in the War on Terror. The Bush Administration looks at him as representing the “continuity factor” in the War on Terror. Washington wants Pakistan’s counter terrorism effort to continue—for which General Musharaf is a key—but it also wants the country to represent a change in the country’s counter-terrorism campaign, which Ms Bhutto has promised to realize by “delivering more.”

Collapse of Deal

It was in this backdrop that Ms Bhutto had returned to the country. As part of the deal, she was required to facilitate General Musharaf’s re-election as President for another five years, which, her party did, by letting its MPs at the national and provincial assemblies to abstain from voting in the presidential elections in early October. For his part, General Musharaf assured to quit the army post and become a civilian president. The PPP leader was back home, and her main rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sent back to Saudi Arabia into second political exile. So, the political field was now open for Ms Bhutto to rally her support prior to the elections.

Two factors that appeared to threaten the Musharraf-Bhutto deal were the PML-N and the Supreme Court. The General’s political allies had been with him through thick and thin for the past several years, even though it can be said that they were dependent upon him more than he was upon them. However, it was but natural on their part to try every thing to linger on to power. The General may have also wished to be realistic, see in Ms Bhutto a new partner, and ditch his previous political allies. But then in a traditional politico-cultural milieu that we have in Pakistan, it becomes difficult for a leadership to suddenly abandon all moralistic concerns and be totally real-politick. Since the day Ms Bhutto landed in Karachi, where her convey met a devastating terrorist attack, her differences with the PML-Q government became apparent. The PPP leader blamed the government for not taking the appropriate security arrangements to prevent the terrorist event—a campaign that continued to gain momentum. It became increasingly clear that her deal was with General Musharraf only.

The second factor was the Supreme Court, which, under Chief Justice Iftikhar Hussain Chaudhry, had been proactively articulating people’s aspirations in the absence of the mainstream political parties, and especially due to the bankruptcy of the political leadership in the eyes of the people. When General Musharraf imposed emergency on November 3, he basically preempted the Supreme Court verdict which could have considered his e-election as President illegal. But emergency was something that was not part of the deal, or which the Americans approved of. That is why both Ms Bhutto and the Bush Administration have categorically opposed it. But there is a difference in their approach to post-emergency situation. The Bush Administration still wishes Ms Bhutto to stick to the deal—accept Pervez Musharraf as President for a second term but without uniform, and contest the general elections. After the imposition of emergency, Ms Bhutto took the ultimate decision of calling for the resignation of General Musharraf as President, while threatening to boycott the general elections.

Bhutto Angers US

Her confrontational stance has visibly angered the Americans, and this may explain why Mr Negroponte did not meet her during his three-day stay in Pakistan. He only talked o her on phone. Besides the President, the US Deputy Secretary of State met only other senior Government officials, including National Security Advisor Tariq Aziz, Vice Chief of Army Staff General General Ashfaq Parvaiz Kayani, former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and Inter-Services Intelligence Director Lt. General Nadeem Taj.

During his press talk, Mr Negorponte made it very clear that the United States supported General Musharraf’s anti-terrorist agenda, even though not approving his declaration of emergency. “President Musharraf has been and continues to be a strong voice against extremism. We value our partnership with the Government of Pakistan under the leadership of President Musharraf, declared the US Deputy Secretary of State. “Under his leadership, Pakistan has made great progress towards that vision. Over the past few years, the Pakistani people have witnessed expanded and freer media, unprecedented economic growth and development, and the moderation of gender-based laws and school curricula.”

Mr Negorponte said, “We welcome President Musharraf's announcement that elections will take place in January, a commitment he repeated to me yesterday in categorical terms. He also repeated his commitment to retire from his army post before commencing his second presidential term. And we urge him to do so as soon as possible….Looking to the future, the United States believes that the best way for any country to counter violent extremism is to develop and nurture a moderate political center. We believe this is true for Pakistan as well. And in my talks, I encouraged reconciliation between political moderates as the most constructive way forward.”

After Negorponte’s Visit

As a follow-up to Mr Negorponte’s visit, US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W Patterson met Ms Bhutto, reiterating the US call for reconciliation among the moderate forces in Pakistan, an indication that the United States was seeking to smooth over relations between Ms. Bhutto and General Musharraf and put their power-sharing plan back on track. The same day, US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington, “I do not think you can dispute the fact that President Musharraf has been a reformer in the sense that he has opened up the political system and carried out economic and education reforms.”

In another development, General Musharraf has left for Saudi Arabia to consult with its leaders. Even though Nawaz Sharif has steadfastly refused to negotiate any deal with General Musharaf, political circles seem to treat General Musharaf’s visit as an attempt on his part to signal Ms Bhutto that if she refused to be a part of the deal then, with Saudi mediation, he can always find another mainstream political ally in the person of the PML-N leader. It was perhaps this threat or the pressure from the United States that may have led Ms Bhutto to show some flexibility of late.

For instance, as her party spokesperson Sherry Rehman has said the PPP will welcome General Musharraf’s decision to shed army uniform, because that was part of the compromise arrangement between him and Ms Bhutto. The only reservation the spokesperson expressed was about the Election Commission, which, she said, had to be overhauled prior to the polls, as a pre-condition for the PPP to contest the January 8 elections.

If both General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto heed Mr Negroponte’s plea, then in the coming days, we shall see further softening of stance on both sides. But the sort of turbulent politics Pakistan has, nothing can be predicted for sure. And then there is also the fact that not all events in the country happen on the asking of the Americans. After all, the Americans, trying so hard for the deal between a General and a populist leader, might also not have wished to see the country’s highest judiciary to become as active as it did under Chief Justice Iftikhar Hussain Chaudhry.