He remains a key player who knows the Pakistan Army
Pakistanis of all hue, politicians, media, intellectuals, lawyers, retired military officers and even the public at large is incensed at the US’ continued support to President Pervez Musharraf, who they unanimously believe ought to be booted out as his party has been trounced at the hustings. They say that an elected democratic government can fight terrorism within Pakistan best. They are correct. But so is the US if one understands that Washington’s objectives are different from those of the people of Pakistan.
There is a reason why the US deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte recently told a Senate panel hearing that the US would maintain its close ties with Musharraf. The US officials are not convinced that Asif Ali Zardari or Nawaz Sharif can deliver what they desire. They have been telling both that they ought to work with Musharraf rather than abandon him. Sharif will not listen to the US hectoring as he has a personal grouse against Musharraf, and however much Zardari may want to pursue Benazir’s politics, he is conscious that Sharif’s support, either inside or from outside to his government, will remain necessary. Zardari thus is non-committal and has said that Parliament would decide whether Musharraf stays or goes. It may be remembered that the earlier US arrangement to incrementally usher in democracy in Pakistan was to have Benazir Bhutto working closely with Musharraf.
The US does not like Sharif as it knows that the Pakistan Army does not trust him; he has been too big for his boots having the audacity to prevent a serving Pakistan Army Chief from landing on his own soil. Sharif can never understand that an army that believes in its indispensability for governance will never allow slight of its top commanders. Media reports from Pakistan suggesting that the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani is apolitical because he has recalled scores of senior military officers doing government jobs back to the barracks are muddled assessments. He has re-called his officers for two reasons: a clear message of the recent elections is that people dislike military officers running the government upfront, and there was a need to consolidate ranks and review his predecessor’s policies. A creation of Musharraf, Kayani is unlikely to change his mentor’s policies drastically as he has himself been an active player in implementing them. What he will do is inject certain course corrections to make them more relevant to the hour. And this is what the US wants.
In tangible terms, the US wants the Pakistan government to cooperate, especially militarily, on Afghanistan, and to maintain a firm hold over the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Let alone deliver on these twin issues, no democratically-elected government in Pakistan can ever hope to be in the complete knowledge loop. As meeting Kayani regularly will not be good for the image of a democratic Pakistani government, Musharraf remains the best person for frequent consultations by the US officials on these matters. He knows his army and its top commanders. If anything, he has served them well in at least three areas: One, by getting the US to bestow the status of a Major Non-Nato Ally on Pakistan, he has helped lift US arms embargos, especially on the F-16s since 1990. Two, Musharraf has succeeded in preventing the US from taking custody of Dr A.Q. Khan who would have spilled the beans about the Pakistan Army’s complete involvement since General Zia-ul-Haq’s time in running the proliferation network worldwide. And three, even while fighting the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan, Musharraf had ensured that the US wink at his army’s support to terrorism into Jammu and Kashmir.
Even a cursory look at the formalised organisational control over Pakistan’s strategic weapons programme set-up by Musharraf in February 2000 shows that elected-politicians have been kept out completely. The key secretariat called the Strategic Plans Division responsible for implementation of plans and oversight of strategic assets is firmly under a director general from the army. The latter taking direct orders from the army chief lords over all financial and security controls on the scientific organisations involved in nuclear weapons programmes. Even the other two service chiefs, the air force and the navy, have little clue about the country’s nuclear weapons programme. With so much authority vested in the army chief, it would be incredible to suggest that as members of the National Command Authority, the elected politicians would have the knowledge or gumption to overrule the Pakistan Army Chief on nuclear weapons. And the US is fully aware of this abiding infirmity of Pakistani politicians.
On Afghanistan, the US desperately needs more cooperation from the Pakistan Army especially when NATO’s thinking is disunited and in disarray, and at variance with the US assessments. The recent assessment by the US National Intelligence Director, Michael McConnell to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban control 10 to 11 per cent of Afghanistan, while the Karzai government controls 30 per cent says it all. The US that has some 28,000 forces in Afghanistan and will send an additional 3,200 Marines mostly for Kandahar in April, knows that little will be achieved without getting maximum boots and own equipment handlers on the Pakistani soil as may be possible for US troops. This will require constant consultations with Kayani and the original devil Musharraf. For this reason, Musharraf’s options have not closed and both he and the US know this.