Riding on powerful anti-American sentiments in Islamabad, rumors are circulating that President Pervez Musharraf is on his last legs, deserted even by his former army friends.
The disclosure of President George W. Bush‘s show of support in a telephone call he made to the Pakistani president on May 30 may have done the shaky former military ruler more harm than good.
Two days earlier, the former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif hurled bitter charges against the president, accusing him “of devastating the country by selling it to foreign powers, carrying out the Lal Masjid massacre, incarcerating the nuclear scientist Dr. [Abdul Qadeer] Khan and superior court judges, and handing over innocent Pakistanis to American agencies in return for dollars.”
Sharif, leader of the Pakistani Muslim League-N, was referring to the president’s pact for collaboration in America’s post-9/11 war, the raid he ordered last year to break up a pro-Taliban stand at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, and his imprisonment of Khan, father of the Pakistani bomb. Last year, Musharraf sacked the judges who ruled his presidency illegal and put them under house arrest.
Sharif’s violently anti-Musharraf and anti-American speech and the general atmosphere in Islamabad persuaded Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, to put his scheduled visit to Pakistan on hold, especially when he learned that Sharif’s Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) was planning to greet him with mass demonstrations.
Boucher was to have discussed coordinating improved tactics against Islamist terrorists with the prime minister, Pakistan People’s Party’s Yousaf Raza Gilani, president Musharraf and the military.
Musharraf survives only because the government is weak
The weakness of the government and the infighting among its partners, who are ranged against him, are the last source of Musharraf’s fading strength.
The main bone of contention between the late Benazir Bhutto‘s PPP and Sharif’s PML-N is if and how to restore the sacked superior judges. After 60 days in power, the governing coalition is sunk in acrimony and increasingly incapable of reining in the spreading anarchy.
But even Musharraf’s old power base is showing cracks.
A former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official, ex-squadron leader Khalid Khawaja, asked the police to open an investigation against him and the former commander of the Rawalpindi garrison, who has since been appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee, over the massacre incurred by the storming of the Red Mosque.
Older grudges are surfacing. Former Lieut. Gen Jamshed Gulza Kiani has accused the president of starting the 1999 war with India when he was army chief behind the government’s back. This has prompted Sharif, then prime minister, to demand that Musharraf be tried for treason.
At the time, Sharif attempted to sack Musharraf and was himself overthrown in a military coup.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Islamabad sources, Sharif is moving steadily towards an attempt to topple the president by a political coup d’etat, to even the score for his own overthrow at Musharraf’s hands nine years ago. The former prime minister found support last week in an action by the army to replace the president’s former military secretary Aasim Bajwa as commander of the 111th Brigade, which is deployed in the capital.
It is known as the “coup brigade” for serving the army chief whenever civilian opponents needed removing.
US army chief snubs Musharraf
Our sources interpreted this action as an ungentle hint by the army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani that if Musharraf or any officer elite faction loyal to him is contemplating another military coup, they had better think again. Sharif was given to understand that if anyone is going to topple the government or president, it won’t be a civilian politician.
Like Lebanon, which Hizballah with Syrian and Iranian backing is fast turning into an American write-off, the Bush administration is putting a brave face on the Pakistan imbroglio. American efforts are being invested to safeguard the mainstay of the war on terror, the military and intelligence cooperation between Washington and Islamabad, with or without Musharraf.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen was in Islamabad this week for counter-terrorism talks with Pakistan’s military leaders, Gen Kayani and Gen. Tariq Majeed.
Mullen decided not to call on the president, a snub interpreted as Washington’s willingness to sacrifice Musharraf on the altar of anti-terror cooperation with the Pakistan military.
Adding to government concerns was the latest terrorist attack outside the Danish embassy, which killed six people including a Danish national and injured dozens. Denmark, Sweden and Norway have closed down their embassies in Islamabad for an indefinite period until the government can promise foreign missions security.
Pakistani prime minister backs away from deals with tribal chiefs
Washington has been on edge over the new government’s talks with tribal leaders in the terrorist-ridden Waziristan and Swat regions. Two peace agreements were signed against the will of the Bush administration and Musharraf. NATO is worried that these deals will encourage the terrorists to step up their attacks against the troops fighting Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
During a recent visit to Washington, prime minister Gilani was persuaded to suspend talks with the tribal chiefs until they agree to halting all activities in Afghanistan and withholding sanctuary and material aid from al Qaeda and the Taliban.
At this point, the Bush administration can do little but try and put out fires and hold the line on collaboration – at least until Bush departs the White House in January 2009. But in the current anti-American climate in the country, the army may not be able to withstand pressure from the politicians to break with Washington.
Popular anger is fueled by US Predator drone incursions from Afghanistan to strike Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts in the border areas. The anger against America focuses on one person, Pervez Musharraf. If he is forced to quit and go into exile, that fury will turn against the army and its chiefs. They will come under heavy pressure from the people and the politicians to break off their partnership with the US in fighting jihadist terror.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report first pointers to their potential rejection of Washington: Islamabad and Tehran are negotiating the extradition of Baluchi Jundullah fighters to Iran. Jundullah, which has its bases in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan and Pakistan’s Balochistan, has carried out attacks against high-profile Iranian government and security officials. The group has been secretly backed and advised by the CIA for the past three years.
When Musharraf was at peak power, such extraditions would have been unthinkable. But these days, the Pakistani elite would rather work with Iran in Afghanistan than with America. The same sort of erosion of US influence that is seen in the Middle East has begun in Southwest Asia as well.