United States Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte lands in Islamabad this weekend “hopeful that moderate elements [in Pakistan] can join together to have increased dialogue to work through this political situation,” said the White House.
It’s a tough call. Two weeks after General Pervez Musharraf banged martial law on his country, Washington’s other most-favored “moderate element” is barricaded in a Lahore residence behind a thicket of police. “It’s over with Musharraf,” Benazir Bhutto told a queue of media on a crackly mobile phone from her lavishly furnished cell.
“He has lost the confidence of the people of Pakistan. He is unable to give the nation a fair election. And he is bent on maintaining and sustaining a dictatorship,” she said. Asked whether there were “any circumstances” in which she could serve in a future government under his presidency, the two-time prime minister, for once, was categorical. “None,” Bhutto said.
For the United States these comments are seismic. For the past six months Washington has been brokering a shotgun marriage between the General and the woman who was once his most vocal adversary.
Two realities squeezed the trigger. One was mounting civic protests against military rule in Pakistan, brought on by Musharraf’s botched attempt to dismiss the independent Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The second has been a native “Pakistan” Taliban insurgency, arching from the Afghanistan borderlands to settled districts in the North West Frontier Province. Since July–when army commandos ousted pro-Taliban clerics from Islamabad’s Red Mosque–nearly 2,000 people have been killed, including 600 soldiers. There have been twenty-eight suicide attacks.
From a politician synonymous in the United States with graft and opportunism, Bhutto became a redeeming angel. But sainthood came with a price. In return for the withdrawal of corruption cases against her–and perhaps a third shot at the premiership–Bhutto would use the popular might of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to steer Musharraf to the shore of another five-year presidency.
The tryst was never about dumping Pakistan’s military ruler, says analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. It was about ballasting him with “civilian” legitimacy: “Benazir provides the political cover while Musharraf and the army focus on the ‘war on terror,’ which is the only thing the Americans are really concerned about.”
What caused the divorce? It doesn’t seem to have been martial law. Imposed ostensibly to tame the Taliban, Musharraf’s aim was to purge the Supreme Court of those judges (including, again, Chaudhry) who were about to rule invalid his presidential “election” in October. Until recently Bhutto was still open to negotiations with the General if he lifted the emergency, restored the Constitution and stood down as army chief. Last Sunday she lauded his promise to hold elections before January 9.