June 5, 2008

Bush loyal to Musharraf

Filed under: FOREIGN RELATIONS,NEW GOVERNMENT AFTER MARCH 24-2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 3:27 am
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JUNE 04, 2008

By Tariq Fatemi

THE Americans are preoccupied these days with their forthcoming presidential election, which promises to be unusually exciting.

It could also create history if the African-American Barack Obama, who has aroused unprecedented enthusiasm among the educated youth, is able to enter the White House. His victory could actually unleash powerful forces of change that may, among other things, restore much of this country�s international image and credibility.

But even in the midst of this hard-fought campaign, current developments in Pakistan continue to cause grave concern in the US, especially among those involved in national security issues. This was clearly discernible in my meetings in Washington with senior officials in government, Congress and think-tanks, over the past couple of weeks.

Admittedly, Iraq remains a highly contentious issue, with most Americans and certainly the Democrats advocating an early withdrawal from that country. On Pakistan, however, there is little to distinguish among the front runners. In fact, even those critical of the way in which the administration has pursued the war on terror, are cognisant of Pakistan�s critical importance to the success of this campaign. They also view the battle lines in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as intrinsically linked, to the extent that failure in one could make success in the other virtually impossible.

Though McCain is more in tune with Bush, most Democrats have major misgivings about the manner in which this administration has �mollycoddled� Musharraf. Foreign policy advisors to both Obama and Clinton told me that they are convinced that Musharraf was never sincere in his claim that he was determined to root out the radicals. But it is Obama�s people who have a greater degree of scepticism, accusing the military dictator of pursuing a duplicitous policy on domestic extremism as well as combating foreign terrorists.

The Democrats are also critical of the administration for not recognising the significance of the February elections and not distancing itself from Musharraf thereafter. What explains this? For one, Bush is loath to give up on any policy, however unpopular, if perceived as being done under pressure. He may also have other shortcomings, but cannot be faulted for abandoning friends.

Over the years, Bush has not only gotten to know Musharraf well, but has become fond of him, viewing him as a faithful though somewhat inconsistent ally. Dick Cheney, who oversees policy on Pakistan, may have no emotional connect with Musharraf, but as an ideologically-driven exponent of American interests, he is no fan of democratic governments in the Third World, claiming that they are inherently weak and also highly inefficient.

It was, therefore, no surprise to learn that at a time when coalition partners in Pakistan were discussing how to respond to the popular demand that Musharraf be eased out, Bush phoned him to assert that he was �looking forward� to the president�s continuing role in �strengthening US-Pakistan relations�. There could be no better evidence of the administration�s insensitivity to the democratic aspirations of the Pakistanis.

Lest it be forgotten, the administration never expected elections to bring Musharraf�s foes to power. After all, it had worked assiduously to �craft� a new political set-up in Pakistan that while attractive, would nevertheless involve little change in substance. In other words, Musharraf would retain overall authority over issues relating to national security, while the civilians would be left to occupy themselves with the economic and social sectors. The ugly features of the authoritarian regime would thus be wrapped up in the attractive packaging that Benazir Bhutto constituted.

Interestingly, I was informed that unlike the past when the State Department was usually in favour of adopting more liberal positions, it is the Pentagon this time that appears to be more cognisant of the changes that have taken place in Pakistan. Its current assessment is that the US can now distance itself from Musharraf, without damaging the operations against the militants, that was being handled by the army chief about whose professional ability and commitment to the war on terror the Americans are in no doubt.

It is also true that US intelligence is currently sounding more confident of its eventual success. For the first time, it is portraying the terrorists as having suffered major reverses in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and being on the defensive throughout the region. This is, however, in sharp contrast to the National Intelligence Estimate issued last August which had described the border areas as an Al Qaeda �safe haven� for terrorists reorganising themselves for attacks against the West. This optimistic assessment led the Democrats to accuse the administration of trying to influence the outcome of the election.

In any case, Washington is not prepared to reduce its pressure on Pakistan, as borne out by the recent remarks of General Dan McNeill, until recently Nato commander in Afghanistan, who charged that Pakistan had not only failed to follow through on promises to tackle militancy on its side of the border but that in recent months it had stopped cooperating with Nato and Afghan forces. He echoed the misgivings being voiced by other US officials over Islamabad�s peace overtures to the tribes, claiming that dialogue with them had always led to an increase in attacks against US and Nato forces. He did , however, add that this may be on account of the �dysfunction� that he attributed to political changes in Islamabad.

Notwithstanding the administration�s claims to the contrary, the fact is that our relations with the US have become totally subservient to the latter�s global war on terror. Not surprisingly, I was warned that though this administration is �the lamest of lame-ducks�, having only a few months to go, its ability to do mischief should not be discounted. Its embrace of the democratic government in Pakistan is at best a tactical retreat, while its preferred option remains an authoritarian dispensation that does its bidding.

The real test, therefore, is that of our own political leaders who have to recognise where the country�s real interests lie. Should they fail the test, the fragile plant of democracy could be smothered in its infancy and authoritarianism raise its ugly head again.


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