US puts its faith in Pakistan's military
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Nov 6, 2009
ISLAMABAD - Abdullah Abdullah, who this week withdrew from the presidential election runoff in Afghanistan, thereby handing victory to the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, did so under pressure from the United States, Asia Times Online has learned.
In exchange for the pullout of the non-Pashtun Abdullah, Pakistan's military has agreed to actively mediate between Washington and the Taliban over a reconciliation plan that will allow the US to exit from Afghanistan, as it is doing in Iraq, with a semblance of success.
A senior Pakistani diplomat involved in backchannel negotiations on Pakistan, Afghanistan and US relations told Asia Times Online
on the condition of anonymity that the deal over Abdullah, whom Islamabad considers to be pro-India, was made during the three-day visit to Pakistan last week of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Apart from other senior officials, Clinton met with the chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, and the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha. It was agreed that all US-led negotiations with Abdullah, which included offering him the position of chief executive officer of Afghanistan, would stop, and Karzai would get full backing for a second five-year term.
It was also acknowledged that Washington's political leadership, like the Pentagon, now accepts that the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan is best tackled with contact between the Pakistan armed forces and the Taliban, and not by the political governments of the region.
Clinton's visit came at a crucial time as Pakistan is engaged in a battle against the Pakistani Taliban and other militants; if it fails, there will be a cascading effect in the whole region and a sure defeat of American interests in Afghanistan.
In this context, Clinton supported Pakistan's vision of Afghanistan, that Abdullah's participation as a major player in the government would be detrimental to the cause of dialogue with the Taliban. Clinton also played a major role in India's decision to pull out its forces from the Pakistan-India border near Kashmir. This allows the Pakistan army to concentrate on its fight against al-Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal areas. The army assured Clinton it would broaden this fight in the coming months.
These developments dramatically unfolded at a juncture when there was clear hostility between the Pakistani armed forces and Washington on the issue of conditions attached to the Kerry-Lugar aid package for Pakistan that was approved in the US last month.
The package, which Senator John Kerry Kerry co-authored with Senator Richard Lugar, triples non-military aid to Pakistan to an annual outlay of US$1.5 billion for five years. The Pakistani army has expressed "serious concerns" about "clauses impacting on national security". The civilian government has hailed the package.
The army is concerned about conditions relating to the non-intervention of the Pakistan armed forces in political affairs and clear guarantees over nuclear non-proliferation and action against proliferators.
In confidential correspondence between the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee of the armed forces and the Office of the President, the forces called the bill "a conspiracy against the national security of Pakistan".
Prior to her visit, Clinton categorically voiced her support for the democratic Pakistan government and strongly supported the conditions attached to the bill, and, taking a tilt at the military, said that if Pakistan did not like it, it had the option to refuse the package.
Unlike the American military establishment, which has developed a close relationship with Pakistan's military establishment, the American political leadership has tended to view Pakistan's political administration as the real force in the country in the period following the end of the military rule of Pervez Musharraf in August last year.
The military decided, according to diplomatic sources who spoke to Asia Times Online, that Clinton's visit was a good opportunity for it to impress on her the importance of the men in uniform, and that without the support of the army, any political administration is a lame duck.
The "lesson" began when Clinton arrived in the capital, Islamabad. The Office of the President advised the Office of the Prime Minister to receive her at the airport, along with cabinet members. But Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani, who is clearly bracketed with the military establishment, refused, saying such protocol was reserved for a head of state.
Similarly, at a reception at the presidential residence in Islamabad, President Asif Ali Zardari wanted the cabinet lined up to meet Clinton, which members did, except for Gillani, who said it was "against his decorum".
And once Clinton sat down with the military bosses, it was made clear she was talking to the real players; she ended up speaking for hours with Kiani, and the meeting endorsed the role of the Pakistan army from Islamabad to Kabul in the coming months.
Setback for Zardari
After what appeared to be a start full of hope after becoming president last September, Zardari's star has faded in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, as well as in Washington.
In 2007, as a result of a Washington-brokered deal between former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and then-president Musharraf under which he pardoned all corruption cases against Zardari and Bhutto (Zardari's wife), Musharraf signed a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). This paved the way for Zardari and Bhutto to return to politics. The NRO, which was due to be presented in parliament this month for approval or rejection as a constitutional act, has come under heavy fire from all quarters.
The biggest setback to the ruling Pakistan People's Party came from its main ally, the Muttehida Quami Movement, the only real anti-Taliban and pro-American political party in the country. In a very humiliating way, it advised Zardari to step down as president and face the courts.
As a result, Zardari decided not to present the NRO in parliament and to let the courts, already hostile to Zardari, decide the fate of the ordinance.
The events playing out now between Zardari and the army are similar to those between Musharraf and the army in his final days before he stepped down last August.
Musharraf, who had resigned as chief of army staff in November 2007, picked Kiani to replace him. But after election results in February 2008 went against Musharraf's allies, Kiani distanced himself from Musharraf. Musharraf, being supreme commander of the armed forces by the virtue of being president, twice tried to change the chief of army staff.
In May 2008 and then in April, he urged the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff committee, General Tariq Majeed, to hold both positions, but Tariq refused, saying it would be detrimental to the interests of the army. Kiani then replaced Musharraf's personal security staff with his own. Musharraf got the message, that he had lost his constituency in the army, and resigned in August.
After Zardari became president, he tried to make Kiani a personal friend. He reportedly extended business favors to two of his brothers, Kamran Kiani, owner of a contruction firm, and Amjad Kiani, a contractor for defense supplies, and feted Kiani with lunches and dinners. This did not go down well with the corps commanders, who criticized the military chief for his closeness to the president.
However, a real breakup emerged after the military felt that Zardari was working as a stand-alone operator on issues of national policies. This included a bid to place the national intelligence authority under a civilian chief and an attempt to install former army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, close to Washington, as the advisor for national security. At this point, they decided to clip his wings.
The army prevented an alliance between the Quaid-i-Azam, a breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, and the Pakistan People's Party to topple the Nawaz Sharif-led government in Punjab province. Sharif, a former premier, is a leading opponent of Zardari.
In March, when an opposition rally started from Lahore to besiege Islamabad to demand the restoration of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary, who had been sacked by Musharraf, Zardari urged Kiani to control the situation with the army. He refused and prevailed on the prime minister to order the restoration of Chaudhary when the rally was still only half way to Islamabad.
Now, given the latest cooperation between Washington and General Headquarters Rawalpindi, the next step is to further erode Zardari's power by passing some of it to parliament, or even forcing his departure from office.
Very much as the US watched on while Musharraf departed, Washington is ready to see Zardari sidelined. This is in the realization that the army is the last hope for Pakistan to deliver the goods in the Afghan conflict.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org