WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Free elections in Pakistan Feb. 18 were to be the first step in bringing a dysfunctional nuclear power back to democratic stability. The preliminary first step was a deal with the pro-al-Qaida Taliban chief in the tribal areas. The new Pakistani army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, and the "amir" of Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, agreed to a cease-fire, as well as the withdrawal of the Pakistani army from South Waziristan, one of the seven tribal agencies along the Afghan border (known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas).
As a result, to mark election day there was "only" one political assassination in Lahore, 24 terrorist incidents in the rest of the country, including two deadly attacks on election rallies in the Northwest Frontier province, the ambush of a Pakistani army convoy withdrawing from North Waziristan in which a major was killed -- all done by extremist groups that are not part of Mehsud's Taliban organization.
The election results, as expected, produced enough votes for the two largest parties -- the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) -- to form a coalition. Only one small problem: Neither one was willing to work with President Pervez Musharraf, who got himself re-elected by the outgoing National Assembly, which had been rigged originally in his favor. Musharraf said he planned to serve out his term until 2012.
Democratic stability took a turn for the worse as Asif Zardari, Bhutto's widower, and Sharif conferred on how they could bring about the impeachment of Musharraf without a parliamentary majority. Sharif, who had been deposed by Musharraf in 1999 and exiled to Saudi Arabia for 10 years, now let it be known he favored A.Q. Khan, the notorious nuclear black marketer, as Musharraf's successor.
As the father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, Khan is arguably Pakistan's most popular idol since the foundation of the republic 61 years ago. After U.S. intelligence produced the proof of how Khan had sold nuclear know-how to America's enemies -- notably North Korea and Iran -- Musharraf administered Khan a slight tap on the wrist: a public confession in English on television and confined to house arrest, but allowed to keep the loot. He is now confined to Pakistan and not allowed to travel abroad.
Even more disconcerting for the Bush administration -- and its successor -- Sharif does not endorse the U.S. "war on terror." He is committed to restoring the old judiciary fired by Musharraf for its interference in "Bush's war on terror." The dismissed chief justice kept pushing Musharraf to get information from Washington on missing prisoners who had been sent to Guantanamo and other secret detention locations.
Throughout the election campaign, Sharif hammered at the theme of missing Pakistani prisoners in U.S. hands. Musharraf was always at a loss to explain where they were. Sharif enjoys a majority in Punjab and can easily form a regional coalition with Zardari's PPP. On the other hand, the PPP can do the same with Sharif's party and put together a centrist coalition at the national level.
Cynics now say the Saudis have the remote control. It was at Saudi insistence that Musharraf allowed Sharif to return from exile in Saudi Arabia last fall. But Musharraf evidently has other plans that would neutralize Sharif -- and force him to wave his true colors. The new coalition Musharraf has in mind would consist of his own party -- Pakistan Muslim League (Q) -- with Zardari's PPP, but without PML(N), thus marginalizing Sharif.
Sharif is the man who kept Musharraf's plane circling over Karachi in 1999 until it almost ran out of fuel. The army removed oil drums along the runway just in time for the C-130 to land with less than five minutes of fuel in its tanks. Sharif was promptly deposed and arrested -- and the army took over for the fourth time since Pakistan independence in 1947.
Now hovering in the background as a potential prime minister in waiting is former President Farooq Leghari, the man who fired Benazir Bhutto during her second stint as prime minister. One of the plans now bruited is for Leghari to succeed Chaudry Shujaat Hussain, president of the pro-Musharraf PML (Q). Leghari, in turn, with U.S. and Musharraf's support, would attract second-tier leaders who would split from PPP and PML(N) to create a broad coalition committed to (1) the war on terror and (2) economic progress with continued U.S. aid.
The best election news was the defeat of the MMA coalition of six politico-religious extremist parties that now must abandon the regional governments they control in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province. This clean sweep also makes U.S. clandestine operations in FATA a lot easier for the United States.
The backing and filling and deal-making behind the scenes seemed to be of little interest to the populace. Food prices had shot skyward and most people were afraid of Election Day violence. Many of the polling stations were almost empty until noon. In all previous elections, the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency tampered with the results to adjust numbers up or down. A political leader considered a threat to the powers that be was given a smaller victory than the one he or she had achieved at the ballot box.
This time, ISI clearly was determined to block the two-thirds majority in the National Assembly for the PPP and PML(N) together that would have paved the way for Musharraf's impeachment. The United States, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia were determined to prevent Musharraf's humiliation in a manner that would have been interpreted by jihadis as punishment for his cooperation with the United States against al-Qaida.
The United States took advantage of pre-election confusion to "terminate with maximum prejudice" senior al-Qaida leader Abu Laith al-Libi. Good, real-time CIA intelligence from North Waziristan flagged a convoy of vehicles transporting seven al-Qaida operatives, including one that appeared to be of high rank. An unmanned Predator was quickly launched and circled over a walled compound where the convoy had stopped. It was the home of a Taliban commander. CIA and Air Force operators at a base in Nevada tracked the Predator and its target on a giant screen, as did supervisors at CIA's Langley HQ in Virginia. Two Hellfire missiles vaporized the compound, killing 13, including the Libyan-born al-Libi, No. 5 in al-Qaida's chain of command.
Musharraf has banned U.S. personnel on the ground in FATA. But there isn't much he can do to prevent Afghan agents working for the CIA and Hellfire missiles from drones controlled from Nevada.