Shlent was the marvelous onomatopoeic term we used in my student activist days, as verb or noun, to describe the stage managing of an event or process in a manner that allowed its appearance to camouflage a power play. (The sound shlent to me always evoked heavy pieces falling smoothly into place.) And I can think of no better term to describe the bogus “showdown” we’re being sold involving Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In fact, appearances aside (although they camouflage very little), it’s plain that Bhutto and Musharraf are still involved in an elaborate U.S.-brokered negotiation process to divide the spoils of power in what might be called Pakistan’s Team America. Musharraf’s police may periodically prevent her from leaving her house, but they’re largely doing her the favor of providing her an excuse for refraining from leading her supporters in confrontation with the regime — which she, and her backers in Washington, are very concerned to avoid. Bhutto has not suffered the fate of other opposition leaders, who have been hounded by the security forces and thrown in prison. And her own political awkwardness and hesitation in responding to Musharraf’s moves are a reminder that all is not quite what it seems in the media narrative of a brave and beleaguered civilian democrat confronting a military despot.
The U.S., in fact, pressed Musharraf to make a power-sharing deal with Bhutto, fearful of the fact that the general appeared to have no social base to continue his role as Washington’s gendarme in the region — as mischievously as he often plays it, every U.S. official who has spoken on the matter in recent weeks has affirmed Musharraf’s centrality to U.S. interests. It was not that the U.S. believed in restoring democratic civilian rule per se — the U.S. didn’t raise a peep of protest when the former prime minister overthrown by Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, arrived home from exile, only to be unceremoniously bundled back onto a plane to Saudi Arabia — after first being sternly lectured about his impudence in showing up by two of Washington’s Mideast trusties, a Saudi prince and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri. No, Bhutto was Washington’s anointed civilian political leader, presumably after she managed to convince the Bush Administration that she was a more reliable ally in the “war on terror” than was Nawaz Sharif. And when pressed as to why she continues to talk to the dictator whose ouster she demands, her spokespeople say simply that the U.S. told them to.
Musharraf and Bhutto are both viewed as allies by Washington, the latter enlisted to broaden the base of stability of a U.S.-backed regime in Pakistan. But proxies always have their own agendas, and the precise balance of power between them remains very much in play — indeed, if anything, the current “showdown” is part of their contest over the balance of power in Pakistan’s Team USA.
So Bhutto calls on Musharraf to quit, and Musharraf responds by contacting Nawaz Sharif for a chat. This is like “War of the Roses.”
Musharraf didn’t declare emergency rule because he feared Bhutto’s challenge; he declared emergency rule because the Supreme Court was about to rule that he was not, in fact, legitimately the president of Pakistan, because he violated the constitution by standing for the presidency while in command of the military. And the reason Bhutto appeared to hesitate when it happened was obvious: She has as much to fear from the independent judiciary in Pakistan as Musharraf does. The same judges threatening to strip Musharraf of the presidency had also warned that the amnesty extended by him to Bhutto — absolving her of numerous corruption charges — was also illegal. (And, for good measure, the same judges had also ruled that Nawaz Sharif’s expulsion was illegal.) The last thing Bhutto needs is the rule of law and an independent judiciary in Pakistan, for that would pull the rug out from her deal with Musharraf, put her back in court, and bring her fiercest political rival back into the picture at a moment when she is increasingly vulnerable, politically, by virtue of her alliance with the U.S.
House arrest, if anything, gives Benazir political cover for avoiding the streets. Better for Bhutto to sit out whatever turmoil will come in the weeks ahead, cultivating an image of martyrdom ahead of the elections that Musharraf promises for January (although a Musharraf promise and a dollar will buy you a cup of chai at Pak Punjab on Houston Street). Remember, Bhutto’s party may be the largest single party in Pakistan, but its ceiling is about 30% of the vote. If the Washington-brokered deal is to work, Musharraf, too, needs Bhutto’s popularity to be boosted.
Proxies always have independent agendas; if they didn’t, well, they wouldn’t be proxies. So, the U.S. struggles to get Musharraf to do its bidding — because he has a far keener sense of the requirements of his own survival in a dangerous part of the world, and also of Pakistan’s strategic interests, than do his U.S. interlocutors. And Musharraf struggles to control the Taliban in the same way. The Taliban, remember, was literally created by Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence in the early 1990s, as a proxy force to take charge in Afghanistan and end the chaos there by establishing a monopoly of force in the hands of a Pakistan ally. This was a continuation of the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan policy in the 1980s of using Pakistan as a sanctuary from which to train and recruit jihadis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and also of Pakistan’s pursuit of its own interest to counter the power in Afghanistan of warlords allied with its key regional rivals, India and Iran — i.e. the forces grouped in the Northern Alliance.
Remember Musharraf’s response after 9/11? He sought, as he made clear in a PBS interview and publicly, to salvage the Taliban regime by urging them to hand over Bin Laden. When they refused, he had to accept the war to oust them, although most of the leadership simply went to Pakistan where they operated with relative freedom. But Pakistan could not accept the dominance of the Northern Alliance in Kabul — which the U.S. had been in no position to prevent. (Proxies with their own agendas and all that: Remember how as the Northern Alliance descended on Kabul, how the U.S. had urged them to refrain from entering the city? And remember how much attention the Northern Alliance paid?) So, Pakistan has clearly continued to cultivate the Taliban option for shaping the balance of power in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has always sought Pakistani loyalty rather than Pakistani democracy. General Zia ul-Haq, the military man who overthrew Bhutto’s father, the charismatic social democrat Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a close U.S. ally, ready to do Washington’s bidding in what was to become a hot zone of the Cold War. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA worked with the ISI and Saudi intelligence to create a jihadist infrastructure of support for Afghan insurgents: The Arab dimension of this infrastructure later became al-Qaeda; the Pakistani dimension are the roots of the current Pakistani Taliban and related extremists. The U.S.-backed military assiduously cultivated Islamists as a hedge against the civilian politicians, and found them to be a useful means not only of securing legitimacy for military rule, but also as a proxy force for waging wars not only in Afghanistan, but also against India in Kashmir.
It’s probably no coincidence that Pakistan’s most sustained period of civilian rule came during the 1990s, when the Cold War was over and the U.S. simply had no need for Pakistan or interest in its domestic affairs. The fact that the civilian leadership in this period, both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, was not only incompetent, but also incorrigibly kleptocratic is not a result of U.S. agendas. It may simply be a by-product of decades of authoritarian rule — and Pakistan’s military, itself, is said to own about a third of the economy. Musharraf’s overthrow of Nawaz Sharif was greeted with a shrug in Washington. It was only after 9/11 that Pakistan came back in fashion, and with it the idea of Musharraf as an “indispensable” ally. Yes, it may be true that the extremists that threaten the U.S. also threaten Musharraf. But not in the same way. And nor is that likely to make Musharraf follow the U.S. agenda, for the simple reason that he’s well aware that most Pakistanis take a dim view of Washington’s “war on terror.”
Musharraf has taken the piss since 9/11, both appearing to cooperate with the U.S. — and cooperating substantially, in respect of police work against individual Qaeda elements — at the same time as cultivating other elements of the equation to enhance his own position. And he’s doing the same in the current “showdown” with Bhutto. The sad thing, for the people of Pakistan, however, is that in the U.S.-sponsored Punch & Judy show, the only choice they’re offered is between the general and a discredited political relic. Regardless of the outcome of this particular Punch & Judy episode, democratic stability in Pakistan is not even on the horizon.