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.
Two fears spurred her revolt, say sources. One was Musharraf's preference that elections be held under martial law--with the opposition jailed, the media muzzled and the judiciary shackled. "Emergency rule gives Musharraf supreme power over the electoral process. With such rigging, the PPP wouldn't stand a chance," says political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
The other was the realization that the PPP alone lacked the power to take on the regime, despite the impressive show it marshaled for the leader's return to Pakistan in October.
On two occasions Bhutto has tried to rally the masses against martial law--once in Rawalpindi on November 9 and again in Lahore on 13 November on a "long march for democracy"--and both times none but hardened PPP cadre showed. Lawyers, civil society groups, other political parties, ordinary people, were nowhere. The enormous contradiction of denouncing the dictatorship while defending the deal was taking its toll. "This thing won't take off if we fly solo," admitted PPP lawmaker Yusuf Raza Gilani.
Bhutto says she now wants to fly in formation. She has reached out to eight opposition leaders, including her old nemesis, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. These should form an all-party alliance based on a "single point agenda," she says, in which Musharraf is ousted and Pakistan's 1973 Constitution restored, a document that explicitly subordinates the army to civilian rule. But unless such unity is translated into agitation it won't mean a thing, says Rizvi.
"If opposition can sustain street protests against the regime, then cracks in the army may appear and Washington will have to rethink its policy. But if Bhutto and the opposition parties simply posture, Musharraf can hang on."
Hanging on seems to be US policy for now. Sources say Negroponte will rehearse his master's voice when he meets Musharraf and perhaps Bhutto at the weekend. George W. Bush has said martial law should be lifted before elections and Musharraf should step down as army chief, "since you can't be head of the military and the president at the same time." (This of course is what Musharraf has been for the past five years, with never a demur from Bush.)
Musharraf is already moving on the latter, signaling he will resign his army position once the "new" Supreme Court rules valid his election. And Washington has signaled it won't make a big deal if a quisling judiciary does the ruling. A week ago Bhutto may have been amenable to such a remarriage, says Rizvi. It's harder now. "The opposition and the lawyers have made the reinstatement of an independent judiciary a key demand. If Benazir ignores it, she's doomed."
And so would be Pakistan, says Nasim Zehra, another analyst. She says the root of the problem is not so much democracy as "the rule of law." She sees two roads out of the current crisis. One is the "Pakistani way that says you cannot have genuine democracy with a dismantled judiciary. The other is the American way that says let's get Musharraf out of uniform, have elections and lift the curbs on the media, i.e. let's have the trappings of democracy but not the substance."
If the first road is taken, says Zehra, Pakistanis may finally be able to tackle the issue that has blighted their state almost since its inception: "the exercise of power without accountability." If the American road is taken, "the polarization will deepen and extremism and political violence will increase. It's a recipe for disaster."