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The Reluctant Affair

Chaos spawns rumors. Word traveled like wildfire across Pakistan in the early days of emergency that General Ashfaq Kiyani had taken General Pervez Musharraf into custody and assumed power. And that the loyalist General, who was chosen as his successor, replaced Musharraf who had lost his way in political intrigue. The rumor was not so misplaced. Similar stories traveled around Washington, D.C., from the State Department to journalists to embassies.

Washington’s gambit, to allow Musharraf to remain in power with the civilian fig leaf of Benazir Bhutto, has unraveled. With few other choices, both the White House and the State Department have turned, it is said, not to the civil society protesting in favor of democracy, but to the barracks, where the most measured man is Kiyani. He appeals to Washington: a chain smoker who is also the president of the Pakistan Golf Association, Kiyani is the type of “chap like us” favored by the brass in Washington and on its embassy row.

President George W. Bush hastened to send one of his trusted people off to Islamabad to confer with his loyal ally, Musharraf. The man chosen for this mission is an old Washington hand, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. For this task of being Washington’s liaison with the Pakistani military brass, Negroponte is very credible. As the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, Negroponte not only ensured the full support of the Reagan administration for the Honduran military dictatorship but also shepherded the ruthless strategy pursued by the anti-Communist Contras from their Honduran bases into neighboring Nicaragua.

Negroponte’s man in Tegucigalpa was General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who famously said that “extralegal” means were needed to take care of any dissidents in his country and that he needed to pursue the “Argentine method” of torture to maintain control of the country.

Negroponte went from that assignment to Mexico City, where, as Ambassador, he pushed the Mexican government to take a more forceful approach against the Zapatistas. Negroponte’s current task is to mollify the brass, to show them that they remain key to U.S. strategy.

The Pakistani military is crucial to the “war on terror” if not in actual fact (Al Qaeda operatives remain at large) then certainly in a symbolic way. This is particularly so for the U.S. elections of 2008, when the viability of a Republican candidacy will rise and fall on the merits of this “war”, in which Pakistan’s performance will be up for national review. Negroponte’s mission is, therefore, weighty.

But this is not Negroponte’s first trip to Islamabad during this crisis. He was there in June to counsel Musharraf about the standoff between the General and the Supreme Court. At the close of that visit, one of the leading opposition figures (currently in jail), Aitzaz Ahsan, told the press, “The Americans have got their eggs in one basket and know only one phone number in Pakistan, and that is now a dud number because it does not communicate with any Pakistani citizens.”

Ahsan, who was an Interior Minister in Benazir Bhutto’s Cabinet in the 1990s, pointed to the White House’s reliance upon the military headquarters in Rawalpindi for its information and its allegiance. But by then Washington was also on the phone with Benazir Bhutto, who was eager to return from exile in exchange for amnesty from corruption charges.

The situation put the U.S. rhetoric into a spin. Its main ally Musharraf had come to power in 1999 to replace “sham democracy” with “true democracy”, and now the U.S. wanted to broker a deal by which he would remain in power (preferably in a suit rather than in fatigues) and Benazir Bhutto would become his Prime Minister and give the entire sham a democratic facade (hence the importance to Washington of the elections in January).

On a popular television talk show, Negroponte’s boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that what was important was that “elections are going to be held and held very soon, and also that the President said he was going to take off his uniform. These have both been essential to getting Pakistan back on a democratic path. Obviously, we are also encouraging that the state of emergency has got to be lifted and lifted as soon as possible.”

When pushed on this point about the General now morphing into the President, Rice demurred, “This is not a perfect situation. Pakistan is a country that has come a long way from 1999 and the military coup. It has come a long way from 2001, when it pledged to try and root out extremism. But it is not a perfect situation, and nobody would suggest that it is.”

One of the intellectual scouts who is tasked with finding a way out of this imperfect situation is Daniel Markey, currently a Senior Fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior planner at the U.S. State Department in the Bush administration. Markey’s essay on Pakistan in the summer issue of the Council’s flagship journal Foreign Affairs (“A False Choice for Pakistan”, July/August 2007) suggested that the U.S. must closely engage the Pakistani military.

The brass is Washington’s closest ally, particularly if the Generals make their strategic shift from affiliating with political Islam towards a closer interconnection with the Pentagon. Washington, Markey wrote, “must win the trust and confidence of Pakistan’s army”. A month later, as events delegitimized army rule, Markey returned to the journal for an update (“The Summer of Pakistan’s Discontent”, September 2007), to urge Washington to applaud the Pakistani military’s moves against the Lal Masjid and in the border regions.

The Benazir Bhutto-Musharraf alliance provided Washington a glimmer of hope out of the darkness, which in this case mainly referred to the confrontation with the judiciary (both Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto were happy to see the courts tethered, the former to remain in power, the latter to see that the corruption charges remain squashed).

“Given the paucity of other viable options,” Markey wrote, “Washington should support such a power-sharing agreement in order to facilitate freer and fairer elections this fall. The United States should also continue to deliver robust military and diplomatic support to the Pakistani army.”
Washington’s concern

Washington’s concern is mainly on the Pakistani-Afghan frontier, on the rise of political Islam within the country and on the concomitant problem of nuclear weapons in the hands of anti-U.S. Islamic groups. The White House is mute when it comes to the democracy being demanded by lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and students.

Their struggles provoke a consideration about chaos rather than hope for the creation of a new political dispensation. They evoke fears of Iran, even as this is misplaced (there are no religious leaders in Pakistan with the stature of Ayatollah Khomeini, according to Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar).

In an interview, Markey warned the liberals against moving too swiftly away from Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. “It was this kind of coalition [between the liberals and the radical Islamists] in Iran that led to the overthrow of the Shah, and the subsequent purging of the liberals, leaving the radical Islamists in power.”

Washington, Markey said, is not wedded to either the military or Benazir Bhutto on idealist grounds but simply because “there are not a lot of great options”. “If there were an opposition leader in Pakistan, or a set of institutions in Pakistan that provided a ready, easy alternative to Musharraf, then I think Washington would have moved in that direction some time ago.” But short of that, Washington has to stay with the military and provide it with civilian cover.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

This article originally appeared in the Indian magazine Frontline.