Saudi King Abdullah Promotes the Partnership to Stabilize Pakistan
President Pervez Musharraf lost an election yet strengthened his grip on the key to a stable Pakistan government, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political sources in Islamabad judge.
Like Keystone Kops, Pakistan’s two main opposition parties dashed off from their Feb. 19 election victory to topple the defeated President.
Then, when the math showed that neither party could rule alone, both turned tail and raced separately in the opposite direction to seek an alliance with their erstwhile enemy.
Thursday, Feb. 21, Benazir Bhutto’s widower Asif Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party sat down to discuss a power-sharing deal with Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
They had by then totted up the near-final results: The PPP led with 87 of the contested 272 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly; the PML-N followed with 67; Musharref’s faction trailed in third place with 38.
Some smaller groupings might be counted into the power game, but not enough to count. One is the moderate ethnic Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), which wiped the floor with a bloc of six hard-line Islamic factions, whose numbers plunged from 56 seats in the Northwest Frontier Province, suspected locations of al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts, to five.
Its leader Asfandyar Wali Khan may look forward to a place in government. At present, he is closely guarded around the clock.
The PPP’s Zardari has said he was not a candidate for prime minister. So, depending on his playing ball with President Musharraf, the front-runner for prime minister at the moment is Nawaf Sharif, whose earlier calls to “rid Pakistan of the Musharraf dictatorship” have faded.
In the present state of flux, two, three, or more of the leading figures could end up forming a national unity government.
Sharif’s PML-N party is a part of the international Muslim Brotherhood and therefore closer to Taliban and al Qaeda than to the PPP, which regards them as enemies.
A steady hand on the nuclear arsenal
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources, Sharif is the choice of Saudi king Abdullah and his friends among other Gulf rulers to head the Pakistan government and work with Musharraf. Apart from personal ambition, he has every reason to do as he is told; they provided for him in his ten years of exile – and still do.
After six months of agonizing over the wild fluctuations in Islamabad – starting with Benazir Bhutto‘s arrival in Karachi – the Saudi throne is beginning to perceive joint rule by Musharraf as president and Sharif as prime minister to be the lesser evil.
Both can be controlled in some degree from Riyadh; together, they can be relied on for a steady hand on the nuclear weapon, which provides the oil kingdom with its nuclear umbrella, and for drawing a line against further Islamist extremist inroads in Pakistan.
Sharif would have to swallow his long enmity with the Pakistan army and former general Musharraf, which terminated his two terms as prime minister in 1998 with a military coup.
They sent him and his family packing to exile in Saudi Arabia, from which he only returned last year. Whatever his feelings, it would not be in his immediate interest to buck them again.
For Riyadh, the fall of Pakistan’s nuclear resources into extremist hands would pose a dire threat to the royal regime, at a time when the Shiite nuclear threat looms large from Iran.
In practical terms, some of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources are beginning to view the inconclusive outcome of the Pakistani poll as a blessing in disguise, a chance for trusted hands to take firm charge of the Sunni Muslim nuclear capability and position it as a counterweight to the Shiite bomb.
This recipe Riyadh has been trying very hard of late to sell Washington.
The first Saudi reference point is that Sharif is their man and, second, he is a jealous advocate of Pakistan’s high standing as Sunni Islam’s nuclear power.
Sharif was the prime minister who ordered Pakistan’s first successful nuclear tests on May 28, 1998, two weeks after India detonated five nuclear devices.
It was on Sharif’s watch that Pakistan became the first Islamic country to acquire a nuclear weapon.
No one in Riyadh, whether King Abdullah, foreign minister Saud al Faisal or intelligence chief Mugrin sees him going back on his championship of a nuclear-armed Pakistan. They expect him to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions as firmly as he challenged India.
Sharif’s Islamist associations – liabilities and assets
To bring the Americans round to their way of thinking on the Pakistan government, the Saudis face three major hurdles:
1. US support for a Musharraf-Sharif alliance to rule Pakistan would mean sharing the stewardship over Pakistan’s affairs with Saudi Arabia.
In the last three years, the Bush administration has been burnt badly in all its joint ventures with Riyadh for such key Middle East issues such as Iran, Iran, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.
Bush is reluctant to risk another flop in the twilight of his presidency. All he wants now is to bow out with as few upsets as possible.
On the other hand, there may be merit in a plan for Musharraf and Sharif, both of whom did badly in the poll, to share power for bringing a measure of stability to the country – at least until the changeover of US presidents next January.
2. Sharif’s closeness to Taliban and al Qaeda is undoubtedly a liability. He strenuously denies such ties, but Pakistan’s SIS intelligence agency keeps on leaking information to support the charge. A retired SIS officer who served in the late 1980s claimed Sharif and met Osama bin Laden on more than one occasion and had even been offered money to topple the PPP government.
The hostile relations between Sharif and the army and security agencies admittedly go back almost 20 years. But Americans sources also attest to meetings he had with al Qaeda’s leader in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N’s leader is firmly on record during his term as prime minister as tabling the Shariat Bill in the lower house on Oct. 8, 1998, a law amendment to make the Koran and Sunnah the supreme law of Pakistan. The amendment was thrown out by the Senate. But meanwhile, on Jan 16, 1999, his government imposed Islamic law in the traditional tribal areas of the northwest on the Pakistan-Afghan border, as the first step to imposing the Islamic order throughout the country.
Secret dialogue with key Pashtun Taliban elements
Before Sharif had a chance to bring his plans to fruition, his government was overthrown in a military coup.
That was then. Today, Washington more pragmatically balances out Sharif’s record with certain benefits, which the Saudis are at pains to emphasize. His old and current contacts in the Islamist world might be useful for promoting the tentative exchanges which are secretly in progress, with CIA support, with Pashtun tribal elements close to Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border lands.
As revealed in past DEBKA-Net-Weekly issues, these exchanges have been on track continuously behind the scenes of the turbulent events in Pakistan, with the aim of driving a wedge between Taliban and al Qaeda. The Bush administration sets much store by this tactic for resolving the standoff in Afghanistan, after it was successfully employed to pacify Iraq by setting Sunni Arab tribes against al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report Washington has intensified its dialogue with the Taliban’s Pashtun elements after discovering that its NATO partners, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, had secretly embarked on direct talks with Taliban leaders, leaving the US behind still working through Pakistani intermediaries.
3. Government leaders in Washington are further deterred from accepting the Musharraf-Sharif formula by the fear that it will be short-lived. Its collapse would further undermine the Pakistan army’s ability to keep the lid on domestic turmoil.
The Saudis admit that a repeat of the shambles left by the military putsch which ousted Sharif nine years ago would be disastrous. No one would profit except al Qaeda, just as it did from Washington’s ill-fated attempt to install the late Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad as partner of Musharraf.
Both Washington and Riyadh agree that President Musharraf must be kept in power to anchor Pakistan’s chances of stability. His resignation or removal would most likely spark another military putsch in Islamabad, either to restore him as head of state or replace him with another general.