Pakistan had its national assembly elections, and the initial results seem to show a tremendous defeat for the party most supportive of President Pervez Musharraf. Do you think these numbers will hold up? And what does the future hold?
They will hold up unless there is a big surprise tomorrow [February 20], because the official results will be announced only tomorrow. As for the future, we are probably in for a long period of governmental instability. Clearly the interests of the leading opposition parties, the PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] and the PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League (N)], converge now and they are cooperating. It’s not definite that this coalition will last very long. And there are two possibilities there. If they get a sizeable majority, which is not completely clear yet, they can either decide to impeach Musharraf, and the temptation will probably be there to do so, helped by pressure from the grassroots as well. If they do so, they will eventually face off against each other and then we don’t know what will happen. If they don’t, then there is a possibility that Musharraf plays their own division against each other. So we’re basically in for a period of governmental instability. But governmental instability means no more than that. This has nothing to do with the general stability of the country.
The Americans of course are most interested in having a government and army that will continue or do better in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the provinces. Do you think that will be affected?
No, not for the time being at least. First of all, whatever the result, the army remains a dominant player in Pakistan politics, even if Musharraf himself has been rejected. Indeed, the army as an instrument is still there. To some degree, the real commitment of Pakistan in the war on terror will remain unchanged. And the support the United States was seeking before will be there. Now eventually the civilian leadership could help mobilize the population in the war on terror, which is something that Musharraf never did in the past.
What would that entail?
People would make the war on terror the “war of the people,” and not something which is imposed from above under the suspicion that it’s imposed by the United States. It will take leadership to do something in that direction to really change that mindset and start mobilizing the people against the kind of violence that they don’t like here. If you look at the crisis of the past nine months, the same people who rejected Musharraf because he was a military dictator supported him in the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] incident [the crackdown on Islamist extremists in July 2007 at a mosque in Islamabad] for example.
Do you think it’s possible that Musharraf might just resign and make this easier?
That would make a lot of sense, but I’m not sure Musharraf will simply agree to go. Pushed to the wall, he usually reacts violently, and if you look at the past few months, it would probably take a lot of persuasion to make sure that he goes peacefully, and I’m not sure that we are there yet. So frankly, I do not know. But I would be surprised if he just decided to go. It would be a reasonable way to exit now and say, “I take into account the result of the polls and go by the wishes of the Pakistani people,” and preserve his standing to an extent in the population. I’m not sure he will be able to do that.
Who do you think will emerge as the next prime minister?
Probably Makhdoom Amin Fahim of the PPP. But let’s wait until we have the final result. That will show the real balance of power among the various political parties. The National Assembly is one element of it. But the strengths within the provincial assemblies are also an important factor in the whole thing.
Whatever the result, the army remains a dominant player in Pakistan politics, even if Musharraf himself has been rejected.
Fahim’s the parliamentary leader of the PPP, yes?
What about Nawaz Sharif, the leader of PML-N? He’s not very friendly to the United States, is he?
Well, it doesn’t mean much–friendly or not friendly. No one was friendly to the United States as long as it supported Pervez Musharraf. And the United States should understand that this is one of the reasons why its policies are so unpopular in the region, more than any ideological affiliation or whatever. And Sharif understood very clearly that any criticism of the military’s alliance with the United States could make him popular. So he played the exact opposite card than Benazir Bhutto [the assassinated leader of the PPP], and decided to go against the United States and against the establishment, and it paid off. Look where the PML-N was just a few months ago and where the PML-N is now, and that’s quite remarkable. Ironically, Benazir had been, for obvious reasons, anti-military her entire life. She came back with the support of the United States in order to back up a military government because the idea was not to really oppose Musharraf, initially, at least. She was basically to give back to Musharraf some of the legitimacy that he had lost in the previous few months. It just didn’t work. And she lost some support because of that. That’s something important to remember as well.
Of course, now Sharif’s support comes in the Punjab [region], and it’s quite a setback for the other party in the Punjab, PML-Q party, which has supported Musharraf.
Definitely. This is not really a surprise in the sense that the electorate of the PML-Q and the PML-N is basically the same one.
Yes. The PML-Q was simply an outgrowth of the PML-N when Sharif was exiled.
If you were advising Washington right now, what should it do?
Washington will do what it tends to do, which is to take into account the results and see what its best interests are. Even in the past few days there has been some sort of a disassociation from Pervez Musharraf. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of “a Pakistan policy” rather than a Musharraf policy. Well that’s going in the same direction. How long will they be able to hold to that is debatable. If I were Washington, I would definitely move away from the present regime and adopt a hands-off approach.
And I guess the United States should praise the election, once the end result is in?
That they will do.
A lot of commentators have been saying that this election is a big anti-American vote, also. Do you share that view?
No, absolutely not. I mean, you do have people who are anti-American because they would be against the Americans anyway. Most people are anti-American now in Pakistan because the United States supported Musharraf, because the United States has constantly been reinforcing Musharraf. In the past few months he did survive politically because he had U.S. support. I don’t think that people are deeply and irreversibly anti-American. This is not an anti-U.S. vote, this is an anti-Musharraf vote. But by extension, there is a U.S. component as well.
I noticed several former officials in the government say this gives the United States a big opportunity. For instance, General Jehangir Karamat, former chief of staff of the army, and ambassador to Washington, said the rout of the Islamic religious parties in the North West Frontier Province [NWFP] was an indication of the national mood that should help the United States. In place of the religious parties, the province chose two secular parties as the powers in the important local assembly.
There was something there all along. The MMA [an alliance of the Islamist parties] won in Balochistan and in the NWFP simply because of military manipulation in 2002. So that vote was very much questionable. It’s not so much a new opportunity which is emerging, as a new chance for the United States to seize this opportunity, which is quite different. I hope they will understand it. I hope that finally they will understand the nature of the Pakistani society.
Do you think Pakistan really has a chance to have a legitimate civilian government in place that can do anything?
When we speak of past civilian governments, we speak of corruption, which also appeared under the military government, including within the military itself. What we face now is a security situation which is absolutely unprecedented in Pakistan. So, what are we exactly talking about? If we expect a perfect government, this is not going to happen. But we have to be clear about the real priority in the area. And if we want Pakistan to stop being the security problem that it has become then we have to look at things a little differently, and stop believing that the military are the solution to that. They were not the solution, in the past, and to a large extent, they were the problem themselves.
I don’t think that people are deeply and irreversibly anti-American. This is not an anti-U.S. vote, this is an anti-Musharraf vote.
Your hope is that the civilian leadership can mobilize the population. How would it do that?
What I would ideally hope is that a civilian government would help shape the perception of the national interests quite differently, so as to change the foreign policy of Pakistan as well.
Away from the United States?
No, not away from the United States. I’m talking of the regional policy. On many issues, Pakistan needs the United States, and the civilian leadership is just as aware of that as anybody in the military. I’m thinking in particular of their relationship with Afghanistan, which is certainly not good. And also the way they deal with terrorist groups within and outside the country. These are the two main points for which we are asking the Pakistanis to do a few things.