Walker's World: Kabuki in Karachi?

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Nov. 12, 2007 at 8:56 AM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Pakistanis have learned to be cynical about the conduct of their politicians and about the promises of their generals. And they know the difference, having spent 32 of the 60 years since independence ruled by the men in uniform.

But the curious events of the weekend have surprised even the most cynical, who are wondering whether they were truly witnessing Friday a new military crackdown with the house arrest of the returned former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the detention of many hundreds of her supporters.

Within 10 hours of Bhutto being informed of her 30-day order of house arrest, the restriction was suddenly lifted. Perhaps it had done the job it was supposed to do, to prevent her from convening a mass rally of her supporters to protest the emergency rule that the country's ruler, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had imposed the previous Saturday.

Perhaps the influential Americans had intervened after they had been surprised by the declaration of an emergency. The White House had called for elections, and it was duly promised for early next year. President Bush last Thursday called on Musharraf to "take off the uniform," and that prospect seems to be back on track. And privately, American officials were telling Musharraf from the moment that Bhutto was detained that she had better be freed soon.

That is the kind of influence that $11 billion can buy, that being the sum the United States has pushed Pakistan's way since 2002, mostly from a Pentagon slush fund that does not require over-rigorous accounting.

But perhaps this was all a kabuki show, a staged drama that made more sense to the participants than to the baffled audience around the world. In a statement Sunday, Musharraf has now said elections will be held on schedule in January. Bhutto was not greatly inconvenienced by her brief detention, and it did her one very good turn.

Since her return to Pakistan from exile, she has looked like the beneficiary of a somewhat unsavory deal with Musharraf. She came home after being promised that the outstanding corruption charges against her would be dropped, that Musharraf would resign from the military and hold free elections in which Bhutto could stand, despite a constitutional bar on a prime minister holding more than two terms of office.

Moreover, the promises went on, the man who would succeed Musharraf as chief of the general staff and therefore the head of the military would be Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, an old friend and associate of Bhutto as her military aide during her first premiership. During his last job as head of the powerful Inter Services Intelligence arm, he handled the negotiations that brought Bhutto back to Pakistan.

The problem for Bhutto was that by returning under such conditions, she seemed to become an accomplice in Musharraf's determination to remain in power. This may have been political realism on her part, but it looked less than heroic to those Pakistanis who wanted a return to democracy and elections and an end to military rule. Bhutto seemed to offer at best a halfway house back to democracy, with Musharraf remaining as president.

Her connivance with Musharraf's plan stood in sharp contrast to the far more combative stance of her main political rival, the other former prime minister (and the one overthrown by Musharraf's military coup in 1999), Nawaz Sharif. When Sharif tried to return to Pakistan, he was deported from the airport, and his corruption charges have not been lifted. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that an opinion poll of some 4,000 Pakistanis carried out last month by the International Republican Institute found support for Bhutto and Musharraf dropping sharply, while Sharif's popularity rose.

That has now changed. Bhutto now emerges as a heroine of the opposition, with her brief hours of house arrest to prove it. The short period of detention and the arrest of many of her leading supporters and political organizers also meant that the mass protest demonstration that she had called against emergency rule did not take place, doubtless to the relief of Musharraf.

And now elections are back on the agenda, with Bhutto looking considerably more popular, and a great deal more electable, than she did 10 days ago. And Sharif remains in exile.

Although she does not like nor much trust the general, and though his political creatures despise Bhutto as a rival who would challenge them for the spoils of office, this is not a bad outcome for the Musharraf-Bhutto duopoly that now seems likely to be ruling Pakistan next year.

Nor is it a bad outcome for the United States, which certainly wants to keep Musharraf in place as the best guarantee that Pakistan and its military will remain allies in the struggle against terrorism. But Washington would also like to ensure that a plausible democratic fig leaf be draped over the reality of his rule. Bhutto, who has been in close but discreet contact with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in recent months, fits the bill.

This may all sound far too conspiratorial, and clearly there are limits to the degree of influence the Bush administration deploys in Pakistan. But suspicious Pakistanis note that while Washington claimed to have been taken wholly by surprise by Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule and the suspension of the constitution, one very influential American was on hand in Pakistan when the decision was taken -- the head of Central Command, Adm. William Fallon.

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