US Congress Jolts Musharraf

Editorial: US Congress jolts General Musharraf
Daily Times, July 29, 2007

There is much disturbance in the dovecotes of Islamabad after the announcement that the White House has agreed to sign into law a counter-terrorism bill passed by the US Congress that also proposes new conditionalities on US assistance to Pakistan. Already, some retired Pakistani diplomats have appeared on TV channels to advise the government to “break off” with the United States and go its own way, which means listening to the “voice of the people” condemning the US as a “crusader against Islam”. The parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, too, has welcomed a similar briefing from an ex-foreign secretary.

The contents of the overwhelmingly bilaterally supported bill — which looks and sounds like the dreaded Pressler Amendment of 1985 — require Pakistan to make “demonstrated, significant and sustained progress towards eliminating terrorist safe havens from Pakistan”. One provision, which has got lost in the anti-US chorus, also makes US assistance conditional to democratic reforms in Pakistan, rule of law and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007. There is also the inevitable reference to the issue central to the Pressler Amendment: proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies, without naming Pakistan’s “national hero”, Dr AQ Khan, whom the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants for interviews.

The White House is understandably uncomfortable with the stiff conditionalities it contains for Pakistan, but there is really very little it can do to water them down as they are linked to the strategy of “strengthening American security to prevent future terrorist attacks” and is consciously presented as a follow-through on the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report. The bill is called the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007. However, it repeats the Commission’s assessment that Pakistan is an important ally with creditable performance in the execution of American plans to act against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The bill then enumerates the “problems” that have cropped up in US relations with Pakistan. (1) Curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology; (2) Combating poverty and corruption; (3) Building effective government institutions, especially secular public schools; (4) Promoting democracy and the rule of law, particularly at the national level; (5) Addressing the continued presence of Taliban and other violent extremist forces throughout the country; (6) Maintaining the authority of the government of Pakistan in all parts of its national territory; (7) Securing the borders of Pakistan to prevent the movement of militants and terrorists into other countries and territories; and (8) Effectively dealing with Islamic extremism.

After having placed the conditionality of certification in the US President — which was also done for five years after the passage of the Pressler Amendment — the new bill wants the Administration to consolidate American policy in Pakistan, designating it as an important “strategic” ally who must cooperate in the programme to “combat international terrorism, especially in the frontier provinces of Pakistan, and to end the use of Pakistan as a safe haven for forces associated with the Taliban”. This is to be followed by a “dramatic increase in the funding for programmes of the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of State that assist the government of Pakistan”, but only “if the government of Pakistan demonstrates a commitment to building a moderate, democratic state, including significant steps towards free and fair parliamentary elections in 2007”.

Is there a provision allowing the White House wiggle-room to deal more autonomously with Pakistan? Yes, there is. This lies in the provision that says that President Bush can delay the restriction under the bill for one year. He would be required to submit a report to a Congressional committee — in classified form if necessary — describing the long-term strategy of the United States “to engage with the government of Pakistan to address the issues described in the bill and carry out the policies suggested by Congress in order to accomplish the goal of building a moderate, democratic Pakistan”.

The 2008 and 2009 fiscal years may see military assistance to Pakistan blocked for 15 days till the presidential certification to the Congressional committee has been submitted. What will the certification be required to ensure? The bill says: “that the government of Pakistan is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control, including in the cities of Quetta and Chaman and in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas”.

When will the bill stop “biting”? The conditionality here is not the “outing” of Dr AQ Khan as some of our anti-American conspiracy theorists say, but more ominously, after the elimination of the Taliban as a threat. The bill says: till the “Taliban, or any related successor organisation, has ceased to exist as an organisation capable of conducting military, insurgent, or terrorist activities in Afghanistan from Pakistan”.

There is no other bill relating to foreign policy that is so specific. The White House is rightly upset because the legislation will cut the ground from under the feet of President General Pervez Musharraf who is desperately trying to win popular support for his counter-terrorism campaign in Pakistan. The “pain” his campaign inflicts on his political partners in the shape of loss of popularity among the masses who are viscerally opposed to America may become unbearable. The protest against America may also become deafening with more calls to “break off” relations with the United States.

Of course, there should be some relief for pro-democracy forces in the conditionalities relating to democracy, requiring General Musharraf to change his own dual office and link up with moderate forces that may shore up support for actions that his government or the one that follows him may take in countering terrorism. Out of all the parties, only some elements in the ruling PML are aware of this obligation. Their assent to President Musharraf’s meeting with the PPP chairperson Ms Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi could be part of a policy to head off the mischief of the move by US Congress. (Some PML politicians have already started joining the PPP in anticipation of the coming political change.)

President Musharraf’s own mistakes have weakened him internally as he faces heavy odds in his fight against extremism and terrorism. His only plank, the ruling PML, has been becoming more and more timid as these mistakes eat into its popular base and defame it by association. His next chessboard move — very much prompted by the US — will give him reprieve if he agrees to doff his uniform and uses a less embattled combination of democratic forces to face up to the terrorist challenge to Pakistan’s survival. *

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