Still Playing The Great Game

by dday

The major news accounts of Benazir Bhutto's death are numerous, but I really like this account of how US policy was so staked on Bhutto's return to Pakistan.

For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week before Bhutto flew home in October. The call culminated more than a year of secret diplomacy -- and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington's key ally in the battle against terrorism [...]

"The U.S. came to understand that Bhutto was not a threat to stability, but was instead the only possible way that we could guarantee stability and keep the presidency of Musharraf intact," said Mark Siegel, who lobbied for Bhutto in Washington and witnessed much of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

But the diplomacy that ended abruptly with Bhutto's assassination yesterday was always an enormous gamble, according to current and former U.S. policymakers, intelligence officials and outside analysts. By entering into the legendary "Great Game" of South Asia, the United States also made its goals and allies more vulnerable -- in a country in which more than 70 percent of the population already looked unfavorably upon Washington.

Don't worry, though, we've got a plan B: that other former Prime Minister who was almost killed yesterday:

On Thursday, officials at the American Embassy in Islamabad reached out to members of the political party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to a senior administration official. The very fact that officials are even talking to backers of Mr. Sharif, who they believe has too many ties to Islamists, suggests how hard it will be to find a partner the United States fully trusts [...]

The administration official said American Embassy officials were trying to reach out to Pakistani political players across the board in the aftermath of the Bhutto assassination.

“Look, most of the people in Musharraf’s party came out of Nawaz’s party,” the official said, referring to Mr. Sharif and speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. While he acknowledged that an alliance between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Musharraf was unlikely given the long enmity between the men, he added, “I wouldn’t predict anything in politics.”

Of course, the big question is who is that senior Administration official? Does he perhaps believe he exists in a fourth branch of government?

The idea that we can find someone, anyone, acceptable to Musharraf to put an imprimatur on democracy there is, in the words of this Pakistan analyst:

“...insane,” said Teresita Schaffer, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, of the proposed alliance. “I don’t think Musharraf ever wanted to share power.”

Elections weren't likely to be all that fair anyway, given that the entire judiciary was installed by the dictator. I think a military coup is likelier than just sliding over to some other national politician and expecting democracy to flourish.

The answer to that depends in part on his successor as army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who, although a protege of the president, must consider whether his mentor has become an impediment to stability.

"He will listen carefully to what Musharraf has to say, but his decision will be geared to security interests of the army, and the country," (analyst Faranza) Shaikh said.

We're not going to be able to snap our fingers and come up with a magic solution in a country of 164 million where our presence is increasingly reviled.