Friday August 3 2007 08:40 IST
Neither side may ever openly acknowledge that they met. Or that they have held similar meetings before. But the secret mini-summit between Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi last week may prove to be a watershed in that country’s internal dynamics.
While questions remain over who sought out whom, or even whether it will finally engineer the rapprochement that will give a new lease of life to both protagonists - one weakened by exile, the other by pandering to radical Islamists - it underscores the obvious truth. There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.
Equally, it clearly marks out the faultlines in Pakistan, separates the moderates from the obscurantist, ideologically driven Islamists who want to share the political space with an Al Qaida-Taliban, bent on aggressively carving out the state of ‘Afghania’ that straddles the badlands on the Pakistan-Afghan border in everything but name.
More pertinently it demonstrates a radical shift in the political compass, pointing to an end to the military’s allpervasive role, its unchecked bull run in Pakistan’s tumultuous history by forcing a power-sharing arrangement with a Bhutto today, a Nawaz tomorrow; but a civilian dispensation nevertheless that must become far more representative than Musharraf’s much-vaunted ‘managed democracy’ that has indisputably failed to carry his people with him. That the normally voluble general who has repeatedly said he wants to retain his uniform and remain president, has been silent about the ‘meeting that wasn’t’ is a telling pointer to the dramatic change in the fortunes of the man, until recently the darling of the west.
The powers that brought about the rapprochement with the canny Bhutto, such as the US, UK and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia are deeply concerned over Musharraf’s fast shrinking area of influence, his inability to stop the ideological encroachment by the resurgent strain of Al Qaida- Taliban led by Abu Yahya Al Libi, the Al-Qaida leader who escaped the high security confines of Bagram airbase near Kabul in 2005 and is in the forefront of the wave of suicide bombings against the military, posing as much a threat to Pakistan as to their own dispensations.
In addition, the peace brokers are concerned over the general’s dwindling support within the top echelons of the normally monolithic Pakistan army, reportedly ready to overlook Bhutto’s previous ‘betrayal’ of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and driving the bridge-building exercise. They hope that a credible civilian face capable of rallying the people rather than an unpopular military one, will keep Pakistan, seen as a questionable ally on the war on terror, at the receiving end of US largesse.
A Bhutto, desperate to redeem the family’s political legacy must have marvelled at the fortuitous timing of the Lal Masjid fiasco and the botched attempt at sacking the chief justice. The latter, set off the snowballing street protests that sucked her political party in and helped her position herself in the west as being on the side of the angels. Musharraf, not shy of speaking his mind on the former prime ministers or persuade the gullible west that if it were not for him, the barbarian hordes - read Al Qaida - would not just be knocking at Pakistan’s door but would take over the nukes inside GHQ, is ironically faced with the self same Islamic bogey. Except it’s no longer a bogey.
If anything the continuing unrest in the tribal areas and the vociferous support the jihadis receive from the Islamist alliance, the seven party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal who have steadily fed the anti-American sentiment that brought them such incredible results in the 2002 elections, albeit with help from the Inter-Services Intelligence is an indication of how deep the support to the so-called ‘creeping Talibanisation’ runs. Jamiatul- Ulema Islam’s Maulana Fazlur Rahman, prime mover behind an entirely questionable peace deal with he tribal elders in Waziristan that provided a safe haven to several foreign Al-Qaida, realises the danger to the jihad posed by the US-UK plan of bringing in a seemingly more pliant leader. He had initially said Musharraf must quit his uniform.
In the wake of reports that suggested Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party could swing behind the dictator, Rahman said he supports the Musharraf- Benazir deal while calling for another deal with the leaders in the Waziristans. Knowing the MMA’s Islamist ideology is anathema to Bhutto’s freewheeling populism, it could be a Rahman stratagem to force the former prime minister to pull away rather than be seen as being on the same side as the right wing party. It could also be his way of pressuring an already weakened Musharraf into making further concessions and forestall a crippling raid by the Americans.
Bhutto, the other mover in this bizarre cast of dramatis personae, and more eloquent than most has spent every day since the ‘meeting that wasn’t’ spelling out what she will not do - back the re-election of Musharraf as president and chief of army staff - while making a point of saying ‘‘while I’m not confirming or denying the meeting.’’ Yet, she flew from London to Abu Dhabi to talk face to face with the man who heads the very military that hanged her beloved father on trumped up charges of murder, destroyed her brothers, destabilised her elected government not once but twice and hounded her into exile where she has fought a slew of corruption charges that were clearly aimed at discrediting her in the eyes of the masses from whom she draws her strength.
Contrast the duo’s refusal to acknowledge the meeting with the sustained leak-a-minute by Musharraf’s political mouthpieces like Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sher Afghan Niazi, former Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, all of whom could have been flies on the wall given the excruciating detail, the blow-by-blow account of the negotiations they have generously shared with the public. Their verbosity is most likely a move to sabotage the deal.
A return of the PPP to political centrestage can only make the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) irrelevant. Indeed, the quartet who were also reportedly present during the meeting - the chief of the ISI, Lt. Gen Ashfaq Kiyani whom many believe will be Musharraf’s successor as army chief post-October once his two main rivals for the post retire, the Governor of Sindh Ishrat ul Ebad who hails from the Mohajir’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Bhutto’s trusted aides Bashir Riaz and former head of the Federal Investigation Agency Rahman Malik - have all been scrupulously circumspect. The details are no secret.
Bhutto’s Achilles heel are the corruption cases against her. In return for dropping the charges, which allow her to return and not face arrest, and for a constitutional amendment that lifts the ban on twice serving prime ministers standing for a third term, she is said to have agreed to back Musharraf’s re-election as president in uniform by the present assemblies, provided he gives up his military post in October and sets up a caretaker government to oversee free and fair elections in January.
Bhutto has reportedly sought guarantees Musharraf will keep his word, hence her public reiteration of how far she is willing to go. The role of the reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Choudhry which is not completely outside the ambit of the Musharraf-Bhutto deal is the new dynamic in a rapidly evolving Pakistan. For the first time in Pakistan’s polity, an activist Chief Justice has not only thumbed his nose at the military and unlike before will block any attempts at subverting the constitution, he has already emerged as the credible voice who lays out the parameters of the civilian-military power sharing agreement and the honest broker between the two sides. Bhutto, who risks rupturing an important alliance with former rival turned ally turned bitter critic Nawaz Sharif has gambled that if she cannot tame the wind, she must at least try trimming the sails. Ha she gambled and lost? Is Musharraf a losing bet? Is the deal too little too late?
The danger is that elements in the establishment increasingly desperate to maintain its hold on the levers of power could play the Islamist card to impose an emergency, even martial law if events do not play out according to their plan. Under a new dictator, it could rig yet another election that could set off greater political upheaval, street protests and anarchy. Both Musharraf and Bhutto will find in each no better friend, no worse enemy. They stand to gain if the deal goes through. But in unpredictable Pakistan, it could as easily unravel.
The author is an analyst and writes extensively on Asia and the Middle East
THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS