Shifting Stakes, Partners

23 Marzo 2007
The crisis precipitated by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's summary sacking of Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry shows no sign of abating. Praful Bidwai reports.
NEW DELHI, Mar 23 (IPS) - The crisis precipitated by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's summary sacking of Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry shows no sign of abating. The resignations of a number of judges and of deputy attorney general Nasir Saeed Sheikh seem to have strengthened the agitation launched by Pakistani lawyers. Various political parties are preparing to jump into the fray. This is Musharraf's biggest domestic political crisis since October 1999. It comes on top of heightened tensions in his relations with the United States as a result of his ambivalence in combating the Taliban in Pakistan's border region abutting Afghanistan. Pakistan's central role in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, its critical location between West Asia and Central Asia, its cosy partnership with China, and its peculiar relationship with India amidst a tense, uncertain and halting peace process, all impart the crisis a special geopolitical significance. As its result, shifts are occurring in Pakistan's external relations and policy priorities. While the U.S. mounts pressure on Islamabad, Musharraf is shrewdly playing the ‘China card', changing the alignment of forces in the region. Pakistan's fight against the Taliban has been badly compromised after Musharraf struck agreements last year with tribal chieftains in the north and south Waziristan regions bordering Afghanistan. These offered to end Pakistani military operations and give safe passage to Taliban-al-Qaeda supporters if they halt militancy and violent cross-border actions. The deals were inspired by a two-pronged strategy: to limit the losses Pakistan's armed forces have suffered (including over 700 deaths) in operations against the Taliban; and secondly, to keep a future option open for a bigger deal with the Taliban-al-Qaeda in case President Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan loses control and/or collapses. The Karzai regime's writ does not run in large parts of Afghanistan. Karzai has repeatedly accused Pakistan of helping elements hostile to him and allowing them training facilities in the border regions. This week saw fierce fighting in these areas between Uzbek and Taliban militants, with over 100 killed. A sizeable section of the Pakistan establishment regards Afghanistan as Pakistan's backyard, which can offer it "strategic depth" against India. "It regards the Taliban as ‘quasi-allies'," Pervez Hoodbhoy, a peace activist and political analyst based at Islamabad's Qaid-e-Azam University told IPS. The Taliban are expected to offer Pakistan a base in Afghanistan when the NATO forces, led by the U.S., eventually leave. "This section of the establishment wields considerable influence in the army's middle-level ranks and the secret services; Musharraf has to pay heed to it," says Qamar Agha, a Central and West Asia expert at the Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi. "Besides being pro-Taliban, it is also hostile to any Indian influence in Afghanistan. Musharraf, weakened by the domestic crisis, would want to deepen relations with the Taliban." "This would also suit his agenda of creating a mutually beneficial relationship with domestic Islamicist elements, whose support he needs to get re-elected as President by October, the deadline set by the Supreme Court,'' added Agha. Musharraf is believed to have recently extracted from the Taliban a promise to allow the free flow of energy from Central Asia and Iran overland to Pakistan. Musharraf now acts against the Taliban only when forced to by the U.S. An instance is the visit earlier this month by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, during which he threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan. Shortly before Cheney landed, Pakistan announced the capture of Mullah Obaidullah, a senior Taliban leader and deputy of chief Mullah Omar. The U.S. had to welcome this. Musharraf has also been trying to neutralise U.S. pressure by turning to China. Following Cheney's visit, he despatched his Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, to Beijing to emphasise and deepen the two countries' close, "all-weather" friendship. During Kasuri's visit, Pakistan offered China a lucrative overland energy route from Gwadar port in Baluchistan, which would cut transit distance for oil and gas by almost one-half. China is investing heavily in developing Gwadar. China and Pakistan have close military relations and are jointly developing a new-generation jet fighter. China is believed to have clandestinely transferred missile technology to Pakistan in the past. Thus, the U.S.'s ability to push Musharraf is limited. A few weeks ago, Washington delivered threats and hinted that it would look beyond Musharraf. Analysts in Washington reassured themselves that the alternative to Musharraf might not be an Islamist takeover of Pakistan. In past elections, they argued, the Islamic parties typically won less than three percent of the national vote. Even in the last elections, held in 2002 after 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the religious parties polled just 11 percent, much less than the 28 percent vote won by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. However, within days, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher announced that Washington would give 750 million US dollars to Pakistan to bring "economic development" to the border regions which serve as a haven for Taliban-al-Qaeda militants. In addition to this, to be released over five years, the U.S plans to spend 75 million dollars in 2007 on "upgrading" Pakistan's Frontier Corps. The present crisis is unlikely to weaken Musharraf's ability to bargain shrewdly with the U.S. and get it to treat him as a "major ally" in the "global war on terrorism". Unless Musharraf's position in the Pakistan army gets seriously weakened, the U.S. will be reluctant to look for alternatives. Boucher recently said: "We have a fundamental interest in the success of Pakistan as a moderate, stable, democratic Muslim nation. That's the direction that Musharraf is leading the nation and we're proud to work with him." The only circumstances under which the U.S. assessment would change is if Waziristan's tribal elders get weakened because of a sustained offensive by U.S.-led forces, and if the Northern Alliance, backed in the past by India and Iran, effectively regroups. Says Agha: "That partly depends on whether Karzai will accommodate these non-Pushtun groups after having systematically marginalised them." Domestically in Pakistan, this is not the first time when a standoff has occurred between the executive and the higher judiciary. An ugly confrontation happened under the last civilian administration of prime minister Nawaz Sharif too. "But what makes the present standoff special is that it follows years of popular disenchantment with military rule," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based independent analyst. "People are shocked at the contempt with which Musharraf treated a judge who showed signs of independence." Siddiqa told IPS: "It is unclear if the crisis will take a political turn with the mainstream parties joining the protests. As of now, Islamic parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami have seized the initiative. But if the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League join the anti-Musharraf mobilisation, things could change dramatically." It appears unlikely that Musharraf will emerge stronger from the present confrontation; he will probably have to make some concessions to his opponents. What is the likely impact of the crisis on Pakistan's delicately poised relations with India? The two have invested much in confidence-building measures and in exploring a solution to the Kashmir problem. Musharraf's security advisor Tariq Aziz played a key role in the clandestine talks on Kashmir, which have reportedly made some progress. The two sides agree that a solution should be found which alters the status quo, but does not re-draw existing boundaries. But they are stuck on Musharraf's proposal for region-by-region demilitarisation and "joint management". However, can Musharraf "sell" a Kashmir settlement to his public, for which there seems to be no strong political base? According to Siddiqa, "the political parties, especially those opposing Musharraf, have no role in the peace initiative; nor do they have any sense of ownership of the policy-making process." In India, a new issue has arisen. The People's Democratic Party, which partners Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress party to rule Jammu and Kashmir, has called for a troop reduction in the territory and has threatened to pull out of the coalition if Singh refuses its demand. If talks on this fail, that could complicate the India-Pakistan dialogue.