Pakistani Politics: Where Exactly Lie the Next Fault Lines?

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Moeed Pirzada | Khaleej Times |

How PPP and PML(N) — despite the Murree Accord — will ultimately resolve their different approaches towards the restoration of judges remains to be seen; but recent developments in the context of the war against terrorism suggest that equally if not more challenging fault lines await them in this important area of decision making.

There are various indications that a major operation in the tribal areas against the Taleban might be in offing. And this might be a new kind of operation by the Pakistan army, assisted by some key US personnel. Disclosures in Pakistani papers, a few days ago, revealed that an “Eleven Point Demand List” to facilitate US personnel inside Pakistan was submitted by the US to Pakistan Foreign Office.

It led to an expected uproar across the media. I had referred to that in my last column in these pages. However, it is not being appreciated that these demands — though some of them very intrusive — only appear to be a natural culmination of the diligent US diplomacy that has been going on for the past several weeks — if not months. To some extent it might also represent a reevaluation of US strategic thinking after Ms Bhutto’s exit from the scene.

In the first week of Jan 2008, the US National Security Council again debated new strategies regarding the war against terrorism in the context of Pakistan and Afghanistan. On Jan 9, the two top most US Intelligence Officials — Mike McConnell, the director of the National Intelligence and Gen Michael V Hayden, the director of CIA — travelled all the way to Islamabad for day long meetings with President Musharraf, COAS Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani and the DG Military Intelligence, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj. And then in the fourth week of January, the top US commander in the region, responsible for operations from Iraq to Afghanistan, Adm William J Fallon, visited Pakistan.

In the same week, US Defense Secretary, Robert M Gates, took the position that the US was willing to send combat troops to Pakistan to conduct joint operations against Al Qaeda and other militants if the Pakistani government asked for it. Since Feb, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm Mike Mullen has visited Pakistan twice.

What really transpired in the meetings in Islamabad and the intense communication that followed was never fully divulged to the media; however, the picture that emerges from the patchy details that found their way into credible publications like New York Times was that initially President Musharraf had his reservations regarding the role of any US troops in ground operations on Pakistani territory. But a compromise formula was reached under which Pakistan showed its willingness to accept the US training, equipment and technical help.

The versions of the US media and the Pakistani chatter mill diverges from this point onwards. Some sources insist that the term “trainers” used by the Americans is a camouflage for “private contractors” whose task will be to manage the technical side of the operations; there is some speculation that these US personnel are not even from the US regular forces but represent some private companies like “Blackwater USA” that earned notoriety in Iraq and have become closely allied with the US National Security apparatus under the Bush and Cheney administration. Though the US sources talked of around a maximum of 100 trainers, Pakistani sources insist that the final number of these “US Personnel” can be much higher.

These speculations have received some support from the nature of “Eleven Point Demand List” submitted by the US and leaked to Pakistani papers; for instance the demands like: the right to carry arms across whole of Pakistan; non-applicability of the Pakistani law and total immunity to the US personnel from any claims for the loss of life and property. The sources that claim that the “trainers” are not trainers but combatants argue that why on earth trainers will need the protection of such kind of rights — immunity from the charge of damage to life and property for instance — as being demanded for them?

The just announced early retirement of Adm William Fallon, (Mar, 11) amidst widely believed rumors that he fell out with White House on the approaches towards Iran — though not directly related to Pakistan — may point out a certain confrontationist yearning inside White House in the run up to the US presidential elections. The victory of hardliners in the just concluded Iranian elections may also add rhetoric to this situation. Most analysts feel that any sudden confrontation with Iran, or visible results — even if temporary — in the war against terrorism, or even an assertive posturing in this region, may add to the political fortunes of the Republicans in the forthcoming elections.

But if the US strategic interests in the region or the political needs in the run up to the elections demand pushing a very assertive offensive within the next few weeks the public and political mood in Pakistan, to put it politely, is towards a total review of the war against terrorism. The preponderance of Pakistani public and expert opinion fears greater instability and chaos if the decision makers continued aligning themselves visibly with the US lead war against terrorism.

And herein lie the fault lines between PPP and PML(N).

Though in recent pronouncements both parties have stressed “dialogue and negotiations” to resolve the insurgency in Northwest, this only hides the underlying differences and even commitments. PPP — and its various supporters — had marketed it inside the US as that moderate political force that if given the opportunity to capture power will provide a popular legitimacy to the war against terrorism. Asif Ali Zardari, recently said that war against terrorism is our own war — something which President Musharraf has been saying lately and which the US desperately wants to hear.

Nawaz Sharif on the contrary said that the war against the terrorism needs to be redefined to dispel the impression that this is merely a US war; even this cautious statement may point out the divergent approaches but to this we need to add that the support base and political allies of PML(N) have been passionate critics of a war they see waged at the behest of the US and that has undermined Pakistan’s national security.

At a point where the US aims to intensify the war effort PPP may find itself in a strategic convergence with the presidency and PML(N) may be compelled to give effect to the popular mood of its support base. But will they manage to do it while sitting inside the same cabinet? We only have to wait for few more days.

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