Pakistan sifts through election aftermath
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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
"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
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
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
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.