By Robert D. Novak (THE WASHINGTON POST, 03/12/07):
Diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad could hardly believe what President Bush said to anchor Charles Gibson on ABC’s “World News” on Nov. 20. He described Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, as “somebody who believes in democracy” and declared: “I understand how important he is in fighting extremists and radicals.” Was the president of the United States issuing Musharraf a free pass to rig next month’s elections in Pakistan?
That was not Bush’s intention. But his lavishing such praise on the general who had ruled Pakistan through military force led to assumptions that the United States would blink at election-rigging. Plotters in Islamabad seeking to undermine Benazir Bhutto’s effort to become prime minister a third time can claim that U.S. diplomats demanding democracy do not reflect their president’s true wishes.
While Bush calls Musharraf “a loyal ally in fighting terrorists,” the Pentagon and the CIA have not been happy with Pakistan’s record against al-Qaeda. That’s why the U.S. government pressed Musharraf to permit Bhutto to return from exile and share power as a more dependable foe of the Islamists. Musharraf’s response was to impose martial law, which amounted to a second military coup to keep him in power.
Intense U.S. pressure has forced Musharraf to resign from the army to keep his presidency, and he is soon to lift martial law. Still at issue is how free the election will be and whether Bhutto will take office with a large governing majority. When Musharraf still resisted Washington’s demands last week that he end his state of emergency, I asked Bhutto how an election could be conducted under those conditions. Her message: “Elections under martial law cannot be free or fair.”
It remains an open question whether an election could still be rigged by Musharraf without martial law. He has appointed local electoral officials who will take orders. Twenty million names have disappeared from the national voters list, whose preparation was financed with U.S. aid. When this was discovered, the government said that anybody on the old list would be permitted to vote. But the new list is flawed, with millions of names repeated to permit multiple votes by individuals. All this attempts at least to minimize Bhutto’s majority and force her into taking a coalition partner.
Musharraf’s efforts to keep Bhutto out have been orchestrated for two years by retired brigadier Ijaz Shah, who left Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to become the president’s chief of civilian intelligence. The ISI, a state within a state, is aligned against Bhutto and would be at the heart of any vote-rigging.
The ISI’s views were expressed Nov. 19 by Ahmed Quraishi, an anchor on state-owned Pakistani television, in an article posted on his Web site and published in several of the country’s newspapers. He describes an American plot “clipping the wings of a strong Pakistani military” that concludes by “toppling Musharraf, sidelining the military and installing a pliant government in Islamabad.”
If Musharraf is finished, the ISI’s chosen successor could be his old adversary, Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister and went into exile when Musharraf seized power eight years ago. A recent secret meeting in Riyadh between ISI and Saudi intelligence officials — Sharif has lived in Jiddah for years — arranged for Sharif’s return Nov. 25. Though he intends to regain national leadership, Sharif is boycotting the January elections, in which he would lose badly. In a recent private conversation with a former Pakistani government official, Sharif said that he hoped a coup would not be necessary to take power but did not rule it out.
Sharif in control would fit the Saudi royal family’s desire for support from nuclear power Pakistan but would be a nightmare for U.S. interests because of his Islamist ties. Bush has bet heavily on Musharraf, sending an estimated $150 million a month in aid. But Pakistan is resisting the Pentagon’s request to send additional U.S. Special Forces to the Afghan border to help Pakistan’s Frontier Corps fight terrorists. Pakistan’s dedication to fighting the Islamist terrorists is diluted by officials sharing in gun-running and drug-running. The U.S. return on its massive investment in Pakistan has been disappointing, with hopes for more from Bhutto if vote-rigging does not stop her.