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A U.S. ally scrambles to stay on top

October 5, 2007 | Page 13

DAVID WHITEHOUSE analyzes the impact of Pervez Musharraf's expected re-election.

PAKISTAN'S PRESIDENT Gen. Pervez Musharraf appears to have the votes lined up to assure victory in an October 6 vote, but opposition to his rule is building to a new crescendo following six months of political crisis.

The military dictator--and partner in the U.S. "war on terror"--has jailed hundreds of opponents in recent weeks and thwarted the political return of Nawaz Sharif, the civilian prime minister he overthrew seven years ago. The capital of Islamabad is on virtual lockdown, with all traffic in and out controlled by army checkpoints and assemblies of more than five are banned.

At the end of September, thousands of security forces, including Army Rangers, thrashed and tear-gassed a crowd of hundreds in Islamabad protesting the election commission's decision to let Musharraf campaign for president while still holding the post of army chief. Those injured and arrested included lawyers, journalists, opposition members of parliament and passersby.

Following the police riot, civilian parties promised a week of demonstration leading to a national general strike on the day of the vote, which will take place in a kind of electoral college convened in Islamabad.

Nearly one-quarter of the electors--members of the national parliament, senate and provincial assemblies--have pledged to resign in protest of Musharraf's continued rule. Musharraf stacked the assemblies in his favor five years ago, however, and he can count on the loyalty of most who don't resign.

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THE POLITICAL crisis broke out six months ago when Musharraf fired his handpicked--but increasingly independent--chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Chaudhry's concerns about the constitutionality of the dual role of the "president general" posed a threat to Musharraf's re-election.

But Chaudhry's ouster exposed the breadth of opposition to Musharraf, even from privileged classes that originally endorsed his rule. Lawyers and court officers led demonstrations for Chaudhry's reinstatement that grew to tens of thousands, and the remaining Supreme Court members gained the nerve to defy Musharraf and restore Chaudhry to office.

The other major challenge has come from former supporters in Pakistan's Islamist parties. The government's crackdown this summer on radical Islamists at the Red Mosque in Islamabad fueled the break, but the roots of the rift run deeper.

At the national level, the Islamist coalition known as the MMA has given Musharraf's party the two-thirds majority he needs to amend the constitution at will. But the MMA's strongest base is in two provinces that border Afghanistan, where support of the Taliban runs high, and resentment of Musharraf's alliance with the U.S. has grown bitter.

Quetta, in the northwest province of Baluchistan, has become a center of Taliban organizing, and much of the poor and sparsely populated province is in open revolt against the central government.

Military interventions in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) next to Baluchistan--conducted at the insistence of the U.S.--have been rebuffed at the cost of some 600 troops. The political effect of the attacks has been to drive residents toward support of the Taliban, and to drive the Taliban closer to al-Qaeda.

The Taliban has always been based among Pashto speakers who span the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to diplomatic cables that surfaced recently in the press, U.S. officials estimate that Pakistani Pashtuns have made up 20 to 40 percent of the Taliban from the group's founding in the mid-1990s.

For 50 years, Pakistan's central government ruled the NWFP and its adjoining "tribal areas" through paid-off Pashtun tribal leaders, who suppressed local opposition. According to a Guardian report, male unemployment runs at 60 to 80 percent in the region, and female illiteracy is 97 percent. Under conditions like these, resistance to traditional authorities has grown through mosques and madrasas.

A year ago, Musharraf tried to shore up his influence--and that of tribal leaders--by signing a peace treaty in the North Waziristan tribal area. The deal broke down because Islamists already held the real power in the area, while Musharraf's most important backers--the U.S.--told him he had to restart the conflict.

Up until the attacks of September 11, 2001, Musharraf and his civilian predecessors--Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto--were strong supporters of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The Pashtun connection made the Taliban movement an extension of Pakistani influence over its neighbor.

But when George W. Bush warned world leaders that they had to be either "for us or against us" in the "war on terror," Musharraf signed up.

Losing American support would mean political failure for a Pakistani leader, since the military has always been at the center of Pakistan's politics--and the military is fueled by U.S. money. For pledging war against al-Qaeda, Musharraf has won $10 billion in U.S. support.

Pashtuns are represented in the Pakistani army as middle-level officers. They trained the Taliban to begin with, and many resigned after Musharraf's post-September 11 reversal. They now help direct the military resistance to NATO and the U.S. in Afghanistan, and to Musharraf in Pakistan.

Because Musharraf's dependence on U.S. support has driven him into sharper and sharper conflict with any Islamist base of support, the MMA, which polls about 15 percent nationwide, has now defected from Musharraf's governing coalition. The group recently joined forces with the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif to lead the agitation against Musharraf.

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THE DEFECTION of the MMA has boosted the leverage of a bigger party, Benazir Bhutto's People's Party of Pakistan (PPP). As a twice-serving prime minister, she is disqualified from running again, but if she threw the PPP's support to Musharraf, the two could re-establish a two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution and--by mutual consent--secure each other's political fortunes.

This cynical scheme is eagerly backed by British and U.S. politicians, who see it as a way to burnish Pakistan's "democratic" credentials while setting the stage for a decisive battle against the Islamists.

Even so, a Bhutto-Musharraf administration might still try to bargain with the Pashtuns of Baluchistan and NWFP to forestall secession--and avoid a sharper war directed against Islamabad, as Osama bin Laden has called for.

In fact, since the Taliban may be strong enough to force itself into a power-sharing deal with Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, Pakistan's future rulers will want to keep some level of connection to Islamist forces because they want to back a winner.

Nothing could be a clearer proof that no principles are involved as Pakistan's elite strives to manage discontent from below by shuffling political relations at the top.

But both Musharraf and Bhutto are paying political costs for negotiating Pakistan's future over everybody else's heads. As Farhan Bokhari wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, "It presents a picture of a weakened president and weak politicians leaning on each other to share the spoils of power."

Members of both leaders' parties are already threatening to resign over the Musharraf-Bhutto connection, and no final deal had been announced when Bhutto declared she would return from exile on October 18.

Up until now, Bhutto has refused to throw the PPP into anti-government protests while she negotiates with Musharraf. But if this week's demonstrations reach major proportions, the PPP may be compelled to join them--and withhold their votes from Musharraf--to salvage some credibility.

The October 6 election may become a turning point in Pakistan's crisis, but given the forces at play inside and outside the country, that crisis is far from over.

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