Fri, Feb 29, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Partnerless in Pakistan: Bush administration losing the plot

By Arif Rafiq

US President George W. Bush rightly called Pakistan's recent national and provincial elections "a victory for [its] people."

But even as he uttered those words, his administration was working behind the scenes to subvert the will of the Pakistani people by trying to dictate the composition of their next coalition government and prop up the election's biggest loser, President Pervez Musharraf.

Bush is playing a dangerous game, risking the collapse of Pakistan's political process for the sake of his own legacy.

Millions of Pakistanis delivered a clear message at the polls. Collectively, they voted against Musharraf and religious extremists and in favor of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.

Nationally, no single party received a majority, but the centrist, democratic opposition won more than 70 percent of the National Assembly seats. The Musharraf-allied faction of the Muslim League party (PML-Q) came in third, polling only 15 percent, despite the assistance of surgical vote-rigging. Most of its senior leaders were defeated in their constituencies -- including one who hadn't lost an election in 26 years. The PML-Q, created in 1999 by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, is now political dead wood.

ALLIANCE

An alliance between the two largest parties, the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League faction (PML-N) is what the country needs and what most Pakistanis want. The PPP and PML-N have the numbers to form a unity government. They also realize that this is perhaps their last chance to "save" Pakistan.

Together with the pro-democracy army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, this coalition can address Pakistan's most pressing challenges, including terrorism. With the addition of smaller parties and independents to the coalition, they can also impeach Musharraf and restore the judiciary, which he had deposed.

This is unpalatable to the Bush administration, which has helped keep Musharraf in power, despite the fact that 75 percent of Pakistanis want him to resign.

The Bush administration considers the PML-N's nationalism and antagonism to Musharraf particularly troublesome. Sharif has called for Pakistan's foreign policy to be debated in parliament, but supports continued cooperation with the US. His party also wants the sacked Supreme Court justices to be restored.

The US government, however, endorsed the justice's illegal removal, seeing the court's insistence on constitutional accountability for Musharraf as complicating its regional objectives. The court, for example, required Musharraf to present alleged terror suspects -- some of whom were likely "rendered" to Pakistan by the CIA -- detained for years without government acknowledgment.

Of course, a popular, democratically elected government and an independent judiciary in Islamabad complicate relations with the US. Democracy is intrinsically messy, but it won't jeopardize Pakistan's partnership in the war on terror.

IMPATIENT

The Bush administration, however, has become used to dealing with one man and is increasingly impatient. In its final year, it would like to increase the odds of a Republican victory in November's US presidential election. Toward this end, progress in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be highly valuable.

As a result, the Bush administration is aggressively interfering in coalition talks between Pakistan's political parties. It wants to pair the PPP with the discredited PML-Q and isolate the PML-N. US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson, for example, has held a joint meeting with senior Musharraf adviser Tariq Aziz and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower.

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