Jun 022008

Whatever the motivations, the telephone call with all its publicity has not been a shining moment in American diplomacy

Why did President Bush feel compelled to make a telephone call to President Musharraf on May 30 and to then publicise through his spokesperson his support for Musharraf’s continuance in office at a time when the buzz in Islamabad was all about Musharraf’s imminent departure?

A telephone call from the President of the sole super power to the President of a country termed a close ally is not unusual. A listing of President Bush’s daily engagements will more often than not include a reference to telephone conversations with one of his counterparts in NATO countries, the Middle East or the Far East.

This is reflective of the global trend to have more and more business transacted through such personal diplomacy and even more so of President Bush’s often mistaken belief that his personal friendships with foreign leaders can advance America’s national interests more effectively than painstaking assessments and negotiations by professionals.

Even so, the phone call was an unusual attempt to influence the course of the internal Pakistani debate.

How did it come about? It is safe to assume that Bush made the call only in response to an SOS from Musharraf and perhaps because the government refused to accept a visit by an American emissary.

It is safe also to presume that Bush’s penchant for placing personal loyalties above professional assessments in making policy decisions played a part in his decision to respond positively.

Perhaps he continues to believe that President Musharraf with all his shortcomings still remains the best partner that the USA can find in Pakistan to pursue the war against Al Qaeda and to prevent Pakistan’s polity from inclining towards extremism.

Perhaps he has made the assessment that the Pakistan Army — the weapon of choice for fighting extremism — continues to be loyal to Musharraf and will take instructions from him on how to fight extremist elements in the tribal areas and prevent Taliban operations against Afghanistan from the Pakistani soil.

If these were the only reasons for Bush’s call it would be a monumental diplomatic faux pas. Historians would probably compare it to President Carter’s offer of support in 1979 to the tottering regime of the Shah of Iran which perhaps more than anything else set the acrimonious and bitter tone of the US relationship with the religious revolutionaries who shortly after this diplomatic blunder took power in Iran.

While all these factors certainly played a part, I think President Bush’s decision to call was made primarily because of the American reading of the internal political scene in Pakistan. The PPP did not win a majority. Had it done so Bush would have relied on the agreement that America had brokered between Musharraf and the PPP’s martyred leader to ensure that the war against terrorism was pursued consistently by the new political dispensation as Pakistan’s own war.

On the internal front there would have been no problem if gradually the President’s powers were circumscribed and the pre-Nov 2 judiciary was restored so long as the actions taken under the Nov 2 PCO were indemnified and a smooth transition was thus arranged.

The PMLN’s strong showing in the elections however changed the equation. It could be seen that while the PPP had secured its votes on the familiar “roti, kapra, makaan” slogan, the PMLN had built its vote bank on the anti-Musharraf, anti-American and pro-judiciary sentiments.

The PMLN’s ideological differences with the PPP and its strong inclination to play to the gallery in terms of the prevalent anti-American sentiment make it a very uncertain coalition partners for the PPP.

At this time the Americans, like most Pakistanis, believe that if Pakistan’s myriad problems — economic, political and social — are to be resolved this alliance must continue. Unlike most Pakistanis I think the Americans also believe that Musharraf’s presence in the power structure, even if he is made virtually powerless, will provide the glue to hold the alliance together.

Whatever the motivations, the telephone call with all its publicity has not been a shining moment in American diplomacy. It will only strengthen the belief that Pakistan is not an equal partner but a subservient tool. It will provide grist for the propaganda mill of the religious parties and others.

And yet this is the time when America needs to strengthen the hands of democratic forces so that they can in their own way tackle the threat of extremism without being branded as American stooges or enemies of Islam.

Others in the American administration have tried to cut the Pakistani leaders some slack in this regard. The American commander in Afghanistan, even while complaining about the increase in cross-border activity and the cancellation on Pakistan’s part of three scheduled Pak-Afghan-US coordination meetings, did mention that this was owed perhaps to the dysfunctionality occasioned by the change in power. The Defence Secretary Bill Gates addressing the same issue talked of the new government needing more time.

Most importantly the CIA director, in a surprising turnabout from earlier assessments has in a press interview talked of successes against Al Qaeda not only in Iraq but along the Pak-Afghan border where he said the “ability to kill and capture key members of Al Qaeda continues and keeps them off balance”

While he refused to discuss the agreements the Americans had reached with the new government in Pakistan he said that “we are comfortable with the authorities we have” with regard to actions in this area.. He cautioned that Al Qaeda remains a serious threat but felt that it was losing its appeal and that there was a growing antipathy towards jihadism.

In so far as the war on terror is concerned, surely the Americans must realise that in building this antipathy in our tribal areas, economic development and the political parties rather than the army or a former general-turned-president will have the decisive role.

The PMLN’s attitude may be seen as less anti-jihad than that of the PPP or the ANP but it too recognises the dangers of extremism and will hopefully, even without the President’s presence provide the political support that the PPP and the ANP will need to change the mindset in the tribal areas and to bring it into the political mainstream.

In the meanwhile the existing agreements will certainly be honoured by the PPP led government at the centre and the ANP government in the NWFP.

It is true that the removal of the President will raise questions about the Nov 3 PCO and the legal ramifications of annulling this PCO. Would this mean that the country descends into chaos? Surely after the years they have spent in the political wilderness the leaders of both the PPP and the PMLN will have the good sense to avoid this.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Courtesy: Daily Times, 2/6/2008

 Posted by at 9:33 am

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