US on Pakistan's campaign trail
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - United States ambassador to Pakistan Anne W Patterson made a direct appearance on Pakistan's political stage on Monday with a strong call for all political parties to participate in the national elections scheduled for January 8.
She personally met with several politicians, including Nawaz Sharif, and insisted that he take part in the polls. Former premier Sharif, recently returned from years in exile, has said that he, along with some other parties, might boycott the vote.
This open intervention by a senior US diplomat follows prolonged backroom efforts by the George W Bush administration to dictate Pakistan's strategic and domestic political issues, as well as matters related to foreign policy, such as Kashmir, to bring Islamabad in line with the US-led "war on terror" and its regional policy on Iran and Afghanistan for the remaining year or so of Bush's term.
The US envoy's direct role comes as civil society is demanding the reinstatement and release of about 60 judges sacked and detained by President General Pervez Musharraf on November 3 on the eve of a decision by the Supreme Court on the validity of Musharraf's victory in presidential elections. Replacement judges picked by Musharraf upheld the poll results and last week he was sworn in as a civilian president.
There are strong concerns that without an independent judiciary, free and fair elections cannot be held next month. Indeed, all opposition parties suspect that the elections will be "engineered" and former premier Benazir Bhutto even predicted that 25,000 polling stations would return the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam.
And in a setback for Sharif, the election authorities have barred him from contesting, citing his criminal record dating from a verdict in 2000 when Sharif was sentenced to life imprisonment on the charge of ordering the hijacking of a plane a year earlier. This related to orders from Sharif, who was then premier, to delay the landing of a plane carrying Musharraf, then army chief, so that a new military head could be appointed. But the military staged a coup, enabling Musharraf to land and take charge of the country.
Leaders of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said he will not contest the decision because of lack of faith in the top judges.
There is not much Washington can do about these political games, other than to stress the need for the parties to contest the polls because that would be a major milestone for Washington in having a popular party at the helm of the country with the political will to carry out certain actions, including stirring an insurgency against the Iranian government and supporting counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan.
After serving a year in jail in 2000, Saudi Arabia brokered a deal for Sharif to go into exile in that country, just as it arranged for his recent return as the Saudis' "card" in Pakistani politics.
Yet, Sharif appreciates that unless he complements Washington's designs in the region, he will remain an underdog in the political process. And although all polls place him as the country's most popular politician, he will remain behind Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Musharraf's allied Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam.
Despite Sharif's statements aiming at showing his support for Washington's aims, such as cracking down on militants, he is still considered to be conservative and under the influence of religious political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami, and therefore Washington is reluctant to back him as a decision-maker.
Khalid Khawaja, a retired Inter-Services Intelligence official and once a close aide of Osama bin Laden, told Asia Times Online, "Sharif is a better person compared to others, but ironically he also turned his back on his mentors, like Osama bin Laden and retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul in the past."
Bhutto and others have pointed to Sharif's alleged links to bin Laden, with Bhutto claiming that the al-Qaeda chief financed Sharif in the late 1980s to topple her government.
Independent analysts might dismiss such matters as being a case of Sharif simply furthering his domestic political ambitions, and nothing else. But for Washington, it sheds light on his linkages with Islamic forces, which could be activated in any form at any time.
And Sharif might be isolating himself over his call for a boycott of January's polls. He stands alone with the Jamaat-i-Islami on this issue and is even facing pressure from within his own party to reverse his stand and may face defections.
The year 2008 is crucial for Washington's regional plans, for which a politically stable Pakistan is required - preferably in the form of a unity government of parties with various backgrounds.
Already, an insurgency has been ignited against Iran from Pakistani soil. A training camp belonging to the banned militant organization Lashkar-i-Toiba has been established in Mund, Balochistan province, to train Iranian Baloch tribes to ferment sectarian insurgency against the Iranian government. Iran's response is to support the Baloch Liberation Army, which has offices in Turbat in Balochistan.
The Pakistani army has for now won the battle of the Swat Valley in Northwest Frontier Province against militants, and recaptured all districts that had fallen to militants loyal to Mullah Fazlullah. The militants are seemingly on the run. Pakistan Taliban leader Moulvi Faqir Mohammed has been quoted as saying that the militants have just retreated from their positions to give the new army chief (General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani) a chance for a truce, but if the army continues its operations, the militants will start a guerrilla war in the valley.
Nevertheless, Washington and Islamabad will build on this development to continue their initiative for ceasefire talks with the Taliban. This will be done through small jirgas (councils) .
The alliance of the neo-Taliban and al-Qaeda, though, will always be waiting to thwart the US's best-laid plans.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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