Guardian; August 30, 2007
For a politician whose sycophantic colleagues boast that she is closer to the pulse of the people than any of her rivals, Benazir Bhutto's decision to do a deal with Pakistan's uniformed president indicates the exact opposite. She is sadly out of touch. General Musharraf is now deeply unpopular here. It is not often that one can actually observe power draining away from a political leader. And the lifeline being thrown to him in the shape of an over-blown Benazir might sink together with him.
An indication that she was not completely unaware of this came a few days ago when she declared that her decision was "approved" by the "international community" always a code-word for Washington) and the Pakistan army (well, yes). In short, Pakistani public opinion was irrelevant.
The mood among sections of the street - I am currently in Lahore - is summed up in a cruel taunt: "People's Party de ballay, ballay / ade kanjar, ade dallay" (Marvel at the People Party / half-whore and half-pimp). This is slightly unfair and could apply to all the Muslim Leagues as well. The fact is that people are disgusted with politics and see politicians as crooks out to make money and feed the greed of the networks they patronise and which double up as useful vote banks.
But it should be acknowledged that Benazir Bhutto's approach is not the result of a sudden illumination. There is a twisted continuity here. When the general seized power in 1999 and toppled the Sharif brothers (then Benazir's detested rivals), she welcomed the coup and nurtured hopes of a ministerial post. When no invitations were forthcoming, she would turn up at the desk of a junior in the South Asian section of the State Department, pleading for a job. Instead the military charged her and her husband with graft and corruption. The evidence was overwhelming. She decided to stay in exile.
In March this year, Musharraf's decision to sack Iftikhar Hussein Chaudhry, the turbulent chief justice of the Supreme Court, backfired unexpectedly and sensationally. Tens of thousands of lawyers protested and took to the streets, demanding his immediate reinstatement. Political and social activists of almost every political hue joined them and a country usually depicted abroad as a den of bearded extremists on the verge of seizing power was suddenly witnessing an amazing constitutional struggle that had nothing to do with religion. Even the cynics were moved to see lawyers insisting on a rigid separation of powers.
The use of force by Musharraf's supporters in Karachi who opened fire and killed peaceful demonstrators created a further backlash against the regime. The Supreme Court voted unanimously to re-instate their chief. The general was becoming increasingly isolated.
The politicians who surrounded him pleaded for a state of emergency or even a new declaration of martial law, but according to many sources here in Pakistan the joint chiefs said that the military was too over-committed on the western frontier to police the rest of the country, which was a nice way of saying "No". With this route blocked, Washington now insisted on a deal with Ms Bhutto. The inner preoccupation to which she was a prey (power at any cost and the withdrawal of corruption charges) prevented her, I think, from having complete control of herself.
The Bush administration, which has brokered this deal, is basically ignorant of Pakistani politics. To isolate the Sharif brothers instead of including them in the "secular package" will drive them in the other direction. Nawaz Sharif is posing as a man of principle, forgetting how under his watch Muslim League thugs raided the Supreme Court and journalists were harassed and locked up. Memories are always short here and the fact the Sharif refused to negotiate with Musharraf has made him more popular in the country.
The notion that Bhutto can succeed in dealing with the Taliban more effectively than the general is risible, as Kamran Nazeer has already pointed out on Cif. Every time innocents are killed in bombing raids in Afghanistan or Pakistan increases support for the Taliban increases. Militants now control or dominate Tank, parts of Swat, North and South Waziristan, Dir, and Kohat inside Pakistan. The solution is political, not military. Killing more people will not help and there have been cases of soldiers refusing to fire on fellow-Muslims and junior officers taking early retirement after a tour of the duty on the Pak-Afghan border.
Pakistan being Pakistan, many observers are convinced that even if the deal is consummated it will be of short duration.