Pakistan sifts through election aftermath



  • By Syed Saleem Shahzad

    As the fallout from Pakistan's general elections comes into focus, one

    enormous question mark has emerged: who will be included in the new

    government? Some major domestic political players have made hasty, if

    strategic, retreats from the government-making process and have

    adopted policies of wait and see.

    Meanwhile, Washington has moved to mend bridges between embattled

    President Pervez Musharraf and the opposition camps in order to

    preserve its interests in the regional "war on terror". Analysts

    believe that if Islamabad is gripped by further political turmoil, and

    if Musharraf exits the corridors of power, the US-led operation could

    flounder.

    "We shall prefer to sit in the opposition and would rather provide

    support for the issues of national interest instead of making any bid

    to be a part of any set-up," Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, secretary

    general of the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam (PML-

    Q), told Asia Times Online. "I think there are a lot of issues where

    any future set-up needs our support, especially in the 'war on

    terror', and we would provide our support while sitting in the

    opposition benches."

    The ruling PML-Q, the main ally of Musharraf, emerged from elections

    in third place - with 41 national assembly seats out of a possible

    272. Independent sources maintain that PML-Q's strategy to distance

    itself from the new government is the result of backroom maneuvering

    by US officials which lasted all of Tuesday. Washington was reportedly

    surprised by the election results and pondering how to preserve the US-

    led terror campaign amid new political developments.

    Indeed, the results have made for some strange bedfellows in the new

    parliament. For example, former premier Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf - a

    longtime Western ally - could be together in opposition, but working

    against each other, and their disagreements, along with the inclusion

    of an as-yet-undecided incoming president, could leave the "war on

    terror" hamstrung. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N)

    secured the second largest number of national assembly seats with 67.

    The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was the winner with 87 assembly

    seats.

    Before the vote, well-placed Pakistani security sources told Asia

    Times Online that the Pakistani and US militaries were planning to

    launch an operation, and that American military officials had been

    discussing it at Pakistani military headquarters in Rawalpindi.

    "The purpose of the operation is to carry out a comprehensive

    operation with precise attacks on the militant hideouts in the tribal

    areas. The American presence in Pakistan has only two limited goals.

    They are equipped with hi-tech intelligence equipment, and second they

    would provide training to our troops to make better use of this

    equipment. However, they would not take any active part in the

    operations," a senior security official told Asia Times Online.

    Nevertheless, he admitted that for purposes of surveillance and

    coordination American officials may accompany Pakistani troops during

    the operation but in no way would take part in any direct strikes in

    Pakistan.

    Now, Pakistan's fragile political situation suggests that the

    operation may be put on hold, giving valuable time for the Taliban and

    al-Qaeda to regroup for a spring offensive. Such a campaign may occur

    as early as April. After all, militant-led violence in Pakistan

    postponed the elections. The government was forced to accept the

    militants' conditions in haste and only concluded a peace deal with

    militants in North Waziristan last week.

    "Military withdrawal was begun only a day before the elections, which

    is the only benefit of this election. Otherwise Musharraf, [PPP co-

    chairman Asif] Zardari and Nawaz Sharif would not make any difference

    in the US-led 'war on terror'," Khalid Khawaja, once a close aide of

    Osama bin Laden, told Asia Times Online when asked for his

    expectations of the election process.

    Washington could revive the weakening pulse of its "war on terror"

    operations with rapid overtures towards Zardari. US officials on

    Tuesday upped the political ante by informing Sharif that Washington

    doesn't support his demand for restoring the judiciary as an essential

    condition for forming a coalition government.

    Sources said Zardari, the widower of slain former prime minister

    Benazir Bhutto, visited the US embassy on Tuesday afternoon and met

    with US officials. Sources maintained that the US is working on a

    scenario in which the PPP would form a government with a coalition of

    smaller parties such as the six-party religious alliance, Muttahida

    Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the Muttehida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pashtun sub-

    nationalist party, and the Awami National Party (ANP), as well as

    independents and moderate leaders from tribal areas. The US is pushing

    the former ruling PML-Q to support the government from opposition and

    continue the US's "war on terror" policies.

    "We are ready to cooperate with the next set-up because any government

    will have tough challenges ahead. The year 2007 was the year when our

    government was forced to take tough decisions - the Lal Masjid

    operation and operations in Waziristan - and as a consequence we lost

    the elections," said former Pakistani information minister Senator

    Mushahid Hussain in an interview with Asia Times Online.

    According to sources, the political wrangling took place at a

    important gathering of politicos - including elements of the the

    establishment and close confidants of Musharraf - which lasted until

    11 pm on Tuesday. A journalist was allegedly sent to Zardari to convey

    Musharraf's assurances that the process of government formation could

    begin without the participation of Sharif. Sources said that

    Musharraf's missive presented himself as head of the state and chief

    of the national security council in order to ensure the role of the

    armed forces in the key policy decisions of the country.

    The PML-N is quite aware of the challenges it faces, especially

    concerning the "war on terror". Although Sharif maintained in a press

    conference on Tuesday that the PML-N would take steps in terror

    operations according to national needs, he also said that joining any

    newly formed government may damage the credibility of the party. With

    this in mind, the inner circles of the PML-N are aiming to abstain

    from the early formation of government and maintain a wait and see

    policy from an opposition perspective.

    So far, no political party has come forward to join the PML-N's demand

    for the restoration of the judiciary - even ANP, the majority winner

    in the North West Frontier Province, categorically denied that this

    was their issue. More important to the ANP is provincial autonomy.

    Washington officially applauded the election process in Pakistan,

    which it termed transparent, among other praises. At the same time,

    however, the US has grave concerns that the vulnerability of a new

    government, or its unwillingness to cooperate with the US, could spell

    doom for the "war on terror".

    "I suggest that political parties should demand that until Musharraf's

    resignation they would not take the oath in the parliament. Because,

    if they take the oath, it means they legitimize Musharraf's

    presidency," said retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, who has

    recently played a major role in organizing Pakistani veterans' groups

    to demand retired general Musharraf's resignation.

    Gul was optimistic that the present vote against Musharraf and his

    allies was a vote against American domination of the region. He

    expressed hope that eventually mass support would push Islamabad to

    abandon all military operations in tribal areas.

    "Americans cannot do anything if we stop the operations in tribal

    areas. If they stop military aid, they are welcome to do so. We don't

    need military aid. All we need is economic aid and they just cannot

    afford to stop it. Why? Because all NATO supply lines pass through

    Pakistan and if they stop economic aid, Pakistan can stop supply lines

    which would end their regional war on terror theater once and for all.

    This is the biggest crime of Musharraf - that he could not understand

    the strategic value of Pakistan in the region and could not exploit

    it," said Gul.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He

    can be reached at saleem_shahzad2...@yahoo.com.