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A Friend for all Seasons

A Friend for all Seasons

A pragmatic US response to the military coup leaves Nawaz Sharif out in the cold.

By Samina Ahmed

Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf's decision to forcibly oust the Sharif government shatters, at least for now, a long held Pakistani belief that political power can only be retained with the goodwill of both American and the Pakistani armed forces. The military's opposition did indeed end Sharif's political career but America's attempts prop up his tottering government were to little avail. While the coup conclusively proves that power flows from the barrel of the gun in Pakistan, has the US a role to play in influencing the future course of Pakistani politics? Does the world's superpower indeed have either the interest or the ability to persuade Pakistan's newest military rulers to restore democracy and constitutional governance?

Although the Clinton administration's response to the coup focuses on the urgent need for a return to democracy, ironically the US played a role albeit inadvertently in bringing about Sharif's dismissal and the reimposition of military rule. In July 1999, threatened by the outbreak of war with India, Prime Minister Sharif had dashed to the Us where President Clinton helped the Pakistanis find a way out of a military misadventure with India across the Line of Control in the disputed territory of Kashmir. On his return home, Sharif made the grave mistake of attempting to shift the blame for the Kargil debacle on the military, hoping to mollify public criticism of the unconditional Pakistani withdrawal. Since the Pakistani withdrawal had adversely affected the internal coherence, morale, and credibility of the armed forces, it was inevitable that Sharif and his army chief Pervez Musharraf would fall over the appointment of blame on Kargil. To offset the military's opposition, Nawaz Sharif attempted once again to obtain US support, an ill-conceived strategy that contributed to his government's dismissal.

On September 14, as tensions with the military high command mounted, Sharif dispatched younger brother Shahbaz to the Us where he met senior policymakers including deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbot, assistant secretary of state, Karl Inderfurth, and director for South Asia of the National Security council, Bruce Reidel. Though no details were provided by either side, it was clear that their discussions centered on the military's opposition at a time when Sharif's opposition had joined ranks, launching a nation-wide campaign to oust the Prime Minister. While the military high command was no doubt incensed at the governments attempts to gain Us sympathy at their cost, Sharif's decision to send Inter Services Intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ziauddin to the US encroached on the military's jealously guarded internal autonomy, threatening its corporate interests and damaging its external credibility.

Although the State Department claimed that the ISI chief was in the US for "routine discussions," Ziauddin's briefing to his CIA counterparts, the Pentagon and Congress centered on the threats posed by the Islamic extremism and an ambitious military establishment to a moderate elected government. According to a congressional source, Ziauddin's briefing enhanced US fears of a takeover by "fundamentalist Islamic radicals" in the Pakistan military. Even while Ziauddin was still in the US, an unnamed US official issued an unprecedented warning on September 20 to Pakistani "political and military actors" that the Clinton administration would strongly oppose any attempt to overthrow the Sharif government "though extra-constitutional means." Although the official added that this was a "two-pronged message: we support the constitutional basis for them being in authority, but at the same time we remind them they have to well obey the democratic rules," US support reinforced Sharif's confidence in his ability to confront his political opposition with all the means at his disposal, constitutional or otherwise. The US administration also reinforced a resentful Pakistani military establishment's motives to intervene. An opportunity to intervene was soon provided by Sharif's eroding domestic legitimacy as the government continued to use brute force to curb political dissent.

The next few weeks proved eventful. Both sides denied the existence of a serious rift. Sharif's information Minister, Mushahid Hussain for instance, denied that Gen. Ziauddin had gone to the US to make any complaints against the army authorities, while Musharraf stressed that their were no misunderstandings between the army and the government. The Prime Minister appeared to have successfully made amends, using Shahbaz as an intermediary in his negotiations with Musharraf and subsequently promoting the army chief to the position of chairman joint chiefs of staff committee. On October 12, however, Sharif dismissed Musharraf, appointing Ziauddin in his stead, thereby triggering the coup that led to his dismissal and the reimposition of military rule.

As the army chief announced the dismissal of the Sharif government, placing the PM and his key associates under arrest, the Clinton administration immediately called for the "earliest possible restoration of democracy." The Us was however cautious in its response to the military takeover, calling the coup a "genuine political crisis," partly in the hope of dissuading the army from prolonging its control and partly in recognition of the fact that Sharif's return was not on the cards. In its negotiations with Pakistan's military rulers, the US warned that a military coup would make it impossible, in secretary of state Madeline Albright's words, "to carry on business as usual." President Clinton sent the US ambassador to Pakistan to urge Musharraf to restore civilian rule. "Pakistan's interest would be served by a prompt return to civilian rule and the restoration of the democratic process," Clinton said, "I urge that Pakistan move quickly in that direction."

Since Musharraf's dismissal of Sharif's government was not accompanied by the declaration of martial law, the abrogation of the constitution or the suspension of the parliament, the Clinton administration could circumvent sanctions automatically triggered under section 508 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act in the event of a coup d'etat. The September 14 imposition of a martial law in all but name has, however, forced President Clinton to impose mandatory sanctions, a largely symbolic step which only affects a mere five million dollars in Us unilateral funding. A decision is yet to be taken on US support for sanctions on multilateral credits and grants from the international financial agencies.

The Musharraf regime has sympathizers, particularly within the Pentagon and in some congressional circles where it is believed that the disciplined and moderate Pakistani military could be a valuable ally in forwarding US regional interests in areas ranging from nuclear non-proliferation to terrorism. Opposing sanctions on multilateral lending, Senator Sam Brownback for instance stresses that punitive measures such as the Pressler amendment have only succeeded in "lessening (US) influence over the Pakistani military, which whether we like it or not, is where the real power presides in Pakistan," while a defense official states that the Pentagon views Musharraf as "pro-western and capable of controlling the country's nuclear weapons." Although the Clinton administration could be tempted, like its predecessors, to adopt a business-as-usual attitude to military rule in Pakistan, such an approach might be difficult to justify and to sustain in the current international climate. The military takeover has been met with almost universal international condemnation. The United Kingdom has suspended aid and under its guidance, the Commonwealth has threatened to suspend Pakistan's membership and adopt a collective response which could include economic sanctions. The European Union has cancelled a trade and cooperation agreement, suspended all aid and trade missions to Pakistan and is currently debating collective military and economic sanctions.

Taking into account this tide of international criticism, the US could be forced to opt for sanctions on multilateral lending in the military fails to provide a definite time frame for the restoration of civilian rule. If the disbursement of credit assistance and loans by the IMF and the World bank are stopped along with a suspension of trade and investment from Pakistan's major trading partners, the military regime will have little choice but to stage a withdrawal to the barracks. To prevent the US from going ahead with as yet vaguely worded threats to punish the Pakistani military for deviating from the democratic path, Musharraf has taken steps to demonstrate his sensitivity to Us concerns. The army chief has, for instance, announced a unilateral military de-escalation on the international border with India and expressed support for a resumed dialogue with the Vajpayee government. Announcing the establishment of a military-controlled National Security Council to run government, Musharraf has also pledged that the military will not stay in charge any longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy. While the US administration has responded with caution, expressing its "disappointment" that Musharraf has not offered "a clear timetable for the early restoration of constitutional, civilian and democratic government," should the military regime successfully persuade the US to adopt a business-as-usual approach, the Musharraf regime might just be here for the long haul.


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For Academic Citation: Ahmed, Samina.“A Friend for all Seasons.” Newsline, .

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