By Dr Mubashir Hasan
Nations devise their foreign policy in pursuit of their national interests. Governments come and go. Sometimes one party is in opposition, sometimes another. The national interests change little with time. In fully sovereign countries, the government and the opposition parties support the main thrust of national interest policies. However, the party in power conducts foreign relations.
A wide consensus seems to exist in Pakistan on at least those aspects of the foreign policy of President Pervez Musharraf which relate to the peace process with India and his stand on the current war in Lebanon. Dissent from hard line conservative elements is limited, for instance, to the tactics of tackling the Kashmir dispute while talking peace with India. On questions of Pakistan’s general alliance with the US and the direction of the country’s economic policies – privatisation, deregulation and globalisation – the PPPP and PML-N, the so called mainstream political parties, also have no differences with the policies of the government. In fact the policies of the present government differ little from those pursued by the governments of Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif during the last decade. I have often wondered why these mainstream parties do not publicly support President Pervez Musharraf on these aspects of his policy. An indication of a possible answer to this vital question comes from an unexpected direction.
Things are not going well for the US and its allies in their war against the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The western media is full of complaints against President Musharraf that he is not doing enough. They want him to do more along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. They are pressurising him as much as they can but are not happy with the results. Therefore, while the US might not want a change in the government in Islamabad at the present juncture, it does want to be in a position to pressurise the government more as far as its own interests are concerned. So with that objective in mind it wants to harness the forces of the PPPP and PML-N. Robert D Kaplan, a national correspondent of the prestigious American journal, The Atlantic Monthly, is convinced that Pakistan is dangerously drifting against the interests of the US. Dubbing Pakistan as a silent partner of the Taliban, he writes in an article (Daily Times, July 21, 2006):
“We can’t reverse this drift without a stronger policy towards Pakistan. I say this with extreme trepidation. President Musharraf, for all his faults, may still be the worst person to rule his country except for any other who might replace him. And yet it is necessary to hold his feet to the fire to a greater extent than we have.”
The influential American journalist seems extremely unhappy with Pakistan’s war effort against the Taliban. He views President Musharraf as the worst possible ruler for Pakistan but still maintains that our general is better than “any other who might replace him”. So what does he propose? Let the general stay at the helm. But keep the fires burning under his feet, not letting him any respite to maintain his present stance. He must be made to shift his ground. And how does one do that? The answer comes from the horse’s mouth.
“Things have reached the point that it was entirely justified for the American Ambassador to Islamabad, Ryan Crocker, to say this month that the exiled former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif should be allowed to return and run against Mr Musharraf. As corrupt as those two leaders were, we need leverage.” The acquisition of “leverage” means: the US gaining the support of political elements which can be used to pressurise the Musharraf government. Towards that end, the United States wants Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif to return to Pakistan not for the sake of a fight for democracy, not for the sake of removing a military ruler but to needle General Pervez Musharraf to do what the US wants him to do on the front against Taliban. Is there already an understanding between the US and the two former prime ministers that the former will advocate their return to Pakistan in lieu of their support for the US agenda? We do not know but considering their past it cannot be ruled out. I recall that an arrangement along these lines was made by the US in 1985. A former US Assistant Secretary of State, when pressed hard to answer why his government was guilty of supporting the martial law regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, revealed to me in an exclusive meeting requested by him, that Ms Bhutto would be allowed to return to Pakistan, martial law would be lifted and the president would not be the chief of the army staff. Miss Bhutto did return within a year. Martial law was also lifted but Zia-ul-Haq did not quit the post of the army chief, and didn’t live for long afterwards.
The US is doing its job well. A section of the elite of Pakistan is taking its queue from quarters close to their vested interests and learning its arguments from the American media. Can President Musharraf see through the game of his present and erstwhile colleagues and of the major political parties? Does he remember the verse he recited on TV in 1999? — Mujhay khauf aatish-e-gul say hai keh kahin chaman ko jala na dey.