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Weinbaum: On Eve of Reelection Musharraf Has Bought Some Time

Interviewee: Marvin G. Weinbaum, Scholar–in–Residence, Middle East Institute
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 3, 2007

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Marvin G. Weinbaum, who served as an analyst on Pakistan and Afghanistan in the State Department from 1999 to 2003, says that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has gained political time to stay in power by agreeing to give up his post as head of the army if he is reelected president on October 6. He also says that Musharraf is strongly inclined to help the United States, but “the base reality is that whatever Musharraf’s sincerity, whatever his willingness to help the United States, certainly against al-Qaeda and less so with the Taliban, he doesn’t have the capacity to do that,” he says.

There’s a presidential election on Saturday in which President Pervez Musharraf is expected to be easily reelected. In advance the Musharraf government said on Tuesday that amnesty would be given to Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister, if she came back as she has indicated she would do on October 18. This follows weeks of contacts between the two sides. Today in London she denied she’d been offered amnesty. It’s a bit confusing since she heads the largest opposition party, the PPP, and she said the party is considering whether to pull out of parliament. Can you sort out this situation?

Both statements are correct. If the government has announced it is dropping charges against Bhutto and her husband, and at the same time she announces that there’s no deal, what she is in effect saying is that there’s no quid pro quo here that she’s willing to acknowledge. At this point it doesn’t serve her interest to do so. She’s taking a lot of heat back home for being as cozy with the president as she has been, so without being able to wrap up a deal, she’s probably best off saying, "Well, I’ll take what they give me, but I didn’t give anything in exchange."

Now she’s still saying she’s coming back to Pakistan on October 18th, but presumably she wouldn’t come back if she’s going to be thrown into jail, am I right?

That’s right. Most of the analysts that I have talked to really expected this; that either she would be pardoned, or that, if she were arrested, she would be out on bail in a couple of hours. But she also was not coming back if she was going to spend a long prison sentence awaiting trial and then who knows what happens after the trial. Today’s statements reflect the inability to reach agreement on a number of issues, one of which is the president’s powers under the eighth amendment of the Pakistan constitution, which give him the ability to dismiss a parliament, and of course the prime minister.

She sees this, understandably, as being an invitation to repeat what happened in the 1990s when she was twice prime minister. She’s been very anxious to have that amendment changed. But they haven’t come to agreement on that. From Musharraf’s point of view, since he is going to give up his uniform as head of the army after being reelected, he wants to keep one of the most powerful tools that he has—the power of dissolution of parliament.

There seems to be no question that he will give up his uniform after he is elected Saturday?

I think so. Having made this pledge to the Supreme Court rather than simply to some political parties as he had in the past, and also with the appointment of Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani as vice chief of the army, clearly the succession is in the works. Musharraf is to give up his uniform sometime after he is elected, although he could wait as late as the middle of November to do it, when his term officially ends.

Tell us a bit about General Kiyani.

He’s fairly well-known in military circles here. As you probably know he was trained at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, at a time when there was close ties between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries. That generation of officers was trained in the United States before 1990, because after that we didn’t have a training program with Pakistan for nearly a decade, due to Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons.

The feeling is here that he doesn’t bear any ill will towards the United States, and indeed may be the kind of general we would like to see in place. He’s apparently well liked within the military itself, which is important, although that might all go badly for Musharraf, if sometime in the future Kayani decides to act independently.

Let’s talk about Musharraf right now, because to most Americans, he’s hard to fathom. On the one hand he’s praised as a strong U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and on the other hand his government is criticized for not doing enough to crush al-Qaeda. If Osama bin Laden is supposedly sitting in sanctuary somewhere in northern Pakistan, it’s sort of a strange situation, isn’t it?

In reality, we don’t have a clue where bin Laden is. Our best guess is that he’s somewhere in the northern part of the tribal area or somewhere above that. He could very well be in Waziristan or he could be in Karachi, for that matter. There are a lot of places where you could hide in Karachi. It’s just as lawless as any place along the border.

As far as Musharraf is concerned, most people believe his instincts are to help us. His whole tenure as president and army chief has tied him very closely to the United States, so much so that a lot of Pakistanis say the U.S. partnership is with Musharraf and the army and not with the people of Pakistan. The military has done very well from the U.S. aid program. It’s gotten probably 80 percent of the money in some form of security assistance, and that’s certainly very highly regarded by people in the military. So he would like to deliver. He has been more forthcoming with respect to the foreigners in the border area, and those are the people we generally refer to as al-Qaeda. He has been considerably less forthcoming in going after the people who are associated with the Afghani Taliban. They’ve had, until recently, pretty much immunity from everything. We believe they had free rein in the city of Quetta, for example. But the base reality is that whatever Musharraf’s sincerity, whatever his willingness to help the United States, certainly against al-Qaeda and less so with the Taliban, he doesn’t have the capacity to do that. He hasn’t had it for some time.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

These borders are erupting, they are out of control. People who we refer to as the “Pakistani Taliban” have effectively created a state within a state. The best that he can do and the army can do is contain that, and there are agreements they’ve reached that have very little to do with our interest. They have to do with Pakistan’s interest in keeping these elements, for the time being, from spreading what we call “Talibanization" outside the tribal regions, the tribal agencies, into the North West Frontier province, and throughout the rest of the county. He has not succeeded in that, either. So right now, with the political difficulties that he’s faced since March, he’s even in a weaker position to be able to deliver on that.

We’ll know, I suppose, when the parliamentary elections take place, but what percentage of Pakistanis are “extremists”?

Not a great many, and we should make the distinction between the fact that Pakistanis may want sharia law. They are very concerned about their religion and they don’t see a separation between church and state or anything like that; they are not seculars. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean they buy into the kind of behavior that we associate with the extremists, with the militants. But it also means they are susceptible to those appeals if there are no other appeals of a more moderate nature, and while the mainstream parties have been sidelined that has been the case. Those who lost their respect for the military, and this has been increasing, have seen the religious parties and some of these religious groups as standing up for them, even though they might deplore the kind of tactics they use.

I gather that right now the United States is extremely unpopular in Pakistan.

Extremely unpopular.

Now you’re a longtime visitor in Pakistan—were we once popular?

There’s always been some resentment because the United States was seen as a fair-weather friend. Among the jihadis and that crowd, no, we’ve never been. But that again has been a relatively small number. What’s happened now is that this negative feeling toward the United States means that most Pakistanis don’t think action in the frontier area against al-Qaeda and the Taliban are in their interest. They see Pakistan as doing it for the United States.

It doesn’t mean that in the parliamentary election that will come later this year or early next year they are going to support the political parties that are anti-American. But without the mainstream parties running in the next election, these extremist parties could very well do better than they are doing. The expectation now is that without the army’s help, which they had in 2002, they will actually do poorer. Particularly if the Muslim League and PPP are running in the election and there are fair and free elections.

Do you think the PPP may pull out of the elections?

No, I don’t. I’ve asked Bhutto that specifically and she’s indicated that she’s not inclined to do that because she realized that to do that and wait another five years in the wilderness, in effect, may very well destroy the party.

Do you think she’d grab a chance to share some power with Musharraf?

She’s got to be careful, now. She underestimates the damage she’s done to herself now by negotiating with Musharraf. She continues to say, “This is in the interest of democracy,” but if all it looks like is that she has gotten herself absolved of wrongdoing, [then] it looks like that she is complicit in keeping him in power, when Musharraf’s popularity has dropped into the 30 percent range. On top of that, her association with the United States—being seen very clearly as the person the United States prefers, and also her statements of late, on A.Q. Khan [the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, who sold his technology to other countries], on the need to apprehend Osama bin Laden, while playing very well here, have played very poorly in Pakistan. I’m just amazed that she hasn’t done more to show independence from the United States without indicating an opposition to our key interests. From what I hear in Pakistan, her own stock has dropped precipitously.

So, in summary, is Musharraf going to survive all of this?

He’s bought himself some time. You never can tell, as we learned with the chief justice issue that simply exploded in early March, what might change things very quickly. It’s very important to note there are no groups on the streets demonstrating right now. Things might have changed if Nawaz Sharif [an exiled prime minister] had been allowed to return and, as he hoped, to campaign on behalf of himself and his party. Musharraf very cleverly put him on ice by sending him to Saudi Arabia.

He’s bought himself some time, unless tomorrow the Supreme Court declares in fact that he is ineligible, which I believe they are not going to do, if only because if they do he might very well declare martial law and put them out of business completely.

But this is a more independent Supreme Court and it may very well be that a demonstration takes place and a lot of people get killed and so on, and that could be a catalyst. But right now he’s going into the parliamentary election, it seems, having stabilized things. Now the parliamentary election itself could be a time of some danger for him.

When is that going to take place?

It could take place any time from the fifteenth of this month [October] to the fifteenth of January. If the government goes overboard to manipulate that election it could bring people into the streets. Certainly if the opposition feels that the election was stolen, then they will try to bring their people into the street.

But right now the only issue that really turns a large number of Pakistanis on has very little to do with a democratic system. It has to do with things such as inflation and corruption.

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