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Musharraf sidesteps US advice

By M K Bhadrakumar
Last updated on: November 05, 2007 12:41 IST
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It is quite evident that the timing of Pervez Musharraf's decision to impose emergency rule in Pakistan is linked to the impending judgment by the Supreme Court regarding the propriety of his re-election as president for another term. But that is only part of the story.

What emerges beyond doubt is that Musharraf's move enjoys the support of the top brass of the Pakistan Army. Significantly, he signed the proclamation on emergency rule in his capacity as the Chief of Army Staff rather than as the President.

Musharraf spoke to British prime minister Gordon Brown on Thursday, hardly 48 hours prior to the proclamation of emergency rule. Britain was a prime mover of the Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto rapprochement.

Admiral William J Fallon, commander of the US Central Command, was on a visit to Pakistan, and he actually happened to be in the GHQ in Rawalpindi when Musharraf was giving the last touches to his proclamation on emergency rule. The political symbolism is self-evident.

Clearly, it stands to reason that Musharraf took care to consult Washington and Britain before announcing his move. Benazir Bhutto's abrupt departure for Dubai against the advice by her party leaders also suggests that Musharraf took her into confidence.

The initial statements of "regret" by the Western capitals, especially Washington, indicate that their dealings with the Musharraf regime will continue.

The statement by the Pentagon spokesman is particularly important for the top brass of the Pakistani armed forces. The spokesman said the development "does not impact our military support for Pakistan".
"Pakistan is a very important ally in the war on terror and he (Secretary of Defence Robert Gates) is closely following the fast-moving developments there".

Traditionally, it is the opinion of the Pentagon that matters most to the GHQ in Rawalpindi – and not the perspectives of the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency. So as long as Washington's support remains in place, the GHQ in Rawalpindi will be pleased with Musharraf, and the latter would continue to enjoy the support of the corps commanders.

At the moment, Musharraf is not looking much beyond that.

The worsening situation in Afghanistan leaves the US with hardly much choice in the matter other than working with the regime that Musharraf heads. The developments in the western province of Farah (bordering Iran) and the southern province of Kandahar are particularly serious.

Musharraf has succeeded in underscoring in the Western capitals that he is the anchor sheet of "stability" in Pakistan.

No matter the actual ground reality, he has succeeded in projecting a cascading threat from the militants, and that he only could effectively counter them.

The Western capitals are quite aware of the extreme fluidity of the situation but are literally forced to suspend their disbelief in Musharraf's claim as the guardian of Pakistan's stability.

In the short term, therefore, Musharraf doesn't have to look over his shoulders.

He is estimating that what matters most is his apparent will to wage a strong military campaign against militants; his helping hand in finessing the "intra-Afghan dialogue" involving the Taliban; and his cooperation with the US in the event of Washington deciding on a military showdown with Iran in the coming months.

In sum, Musharraf assesses that he has a relatively free hand to instead press ahead with his political agenda within Pakistan.
This means first and foremost that he will hold both the offices of President and Chief of Army Staff at least until the elections early next year.

He will expect the new Supreme Court to endorse his re-election as President, which will enable him to be sworn in by the third week of November in time before the sitting legislative bodies run out their term.

Musharraf has certainly sized up that Bhutto's political image has been badly tarnished due to her controversial "deal" with him. It will take a long time for her to regain her credibility in the popular opinion within Pakistan. From Musharraf's point of view, therefore, in the short term at least, she is virtually rendered ineffectual as a rallying point of opposition, even assuming that she has the will to act in such a capacity.

All the same, he may still have a need for her but that is something for the future. More important, Washington and London may not have given up hope completely regarding her return to mainstream politics in Pakistan's leadership structure.

Meanwhile, Musharraf has virtually decided to continue to rely on the present ruling party of PML, which has been staunchly resisting Bhutto's political accommodation. He has chosen not to upset the apple cart. He continues to rely on the resourceful, crafty Choudhury clan for holding fort in Punjab. His equations with the MQM, the party of the Mohajirs, remain intact. It is highly possible that some elements of the Islamic parties such as the UPI led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman would be co-opted in the coming weeks.

Musharraf will count on the ISI to manipulate a coalition of political forces that would steer its way successfully past the next parliamentary elections. The regime has also assessed that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's return to Pakistan can be endlessly stalled in the new circumstances with a pliant judiciary.

All this means that Musharraf is planning for the long haul.

He has estimated that the prospects of an eruption of popular agitation under the leadership of the democratic opposition are almost nil in immediate terms. This is despite the fact that the reasons advanced by Musharraf for imposing emergency rule lack credibility in the public perceptions in Pakistan.

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M K Bhadrakumar