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U.S. losing go-to man in Pakistan

Times Staff Writer

Not so long ago, the Bush administration could take a one-stop approach to its dealings with Pakistan. Whether Washington wanted to carry out airstrikes against Al Qaeda, trade sensitive intelligence or orchestrate the arrest of a terrorism suspect, it essentially came down to dialing the number of one man: President Pervez Musharraf.

Now all that has changed. Newly inaugurated Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani has pledged to take a hard new look at counter-terrorism, the centerpiece of Musharraf’s nearly nine-year rule. He will be backed by a Cabinet made up of former opposition figures who probably will be sworn in this week.

An assertive new parliament is vowing to wield authority that lawmakers here lacked for years, demanding oversight on matters that were previously the president’s sole purview. And the general who succeeded Musharraf as army chief four months ago has methodically removed the powerful military from politics and promised accountability to elected officials.

When it comes to relations with the United States, the public mood is angry. It is highly likely that some U.S. military actions routinely allowed under the old government will be subject to greater scrutiny.

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But some analysts and officials said that despite a universal desire to put the United States on notice that the center of gravity has shifted away from Musharraf, many basic elements of the American-Pakistani relationship will remain in place, even in all-important security matters.

The new government has pledged to restore Pakistan’s status as a parliamentary democracy in which the president has mainly ceremonial powers.

That seems in line with Musharraf’s role of late. In the last week, he has occupied himself with duties such as watching a military parade from the reviewing stand and presiding over ceremonies like the somewhat awkward swearing-in of Gillani, whom Musharraf had once jailed for nearly five years.

“It’s a sea change,” said Talat Hussain, a senior journalist and analyst. “The whole idea of serious undertakings occurring on only one person’s authority, without review or scrutiny by any institution -- that is the problem that everyone wanted addressed, and now it is being addressed.”

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The widespread perception of Musharraf as a puppet of the United States has been a driving force in events of recent months, including the devastating defeat of the president’s party in February elections.

Many Pakistanis believe their army has been fighting what amounts to a proxy war for Americans against Islamic militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, and at the same time experiencing horrendous “blow back” in the form of dozens of suicide bombings that have ravaged Pakistani cities and towns.

“All these years, Musharraf did America’s bidding,” said flower vendor Abdul Rashid, whose soldier son died fighting insurgents in Pakistan’s restive northwest. “And we are the ones who have suffered for it.”

That chill was much in evidence during a visit last week by two senior American diplomats.

“Hands off, please, Uncle Sam!” a headline in the News, a nationally circulated daily, admonished arriving Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs.

Nawaz Sharif, the outspoken leader of the junior party in the new ruling coalition that trounced Musharraf’s party in elections last month, held a get-acquainted session with the American envoys. Immediately after, he blamed cooperation with the United States against Islamic militants for causing Pakistani deaths.

“It is unacceptable that . . . we make our own country a killing field,” he said at a news conference.

Even grizzled tribal elders jumped in to give the visiting Americans a piece of their mind, reminding them during a visit to the rugged frontier zone that the jirga, or traditional tribal council, has for centuries been the preferred method of problem-solving.

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Despite the anger directed at Washington, there still are many areas in which the new government is likely to work with the United States, including counter-terrorism.

“It wouldn’t be fair to characterize it as a change in fundamental goals,” said Husain Haqqani, a Boston University professor who is expected to play a senior foreign policy role in the new government.

“In fact, in my opinion, the elected government will be far more effective because it will have popular legitimacy, and whatever commitments are made to the Americans will not be undone on legal or other grounds,” Haqqani said.

Musharraf was thought to have given tacit approval for U.S. airstrikes in the tribal areas, including a missile attack that killed a senior Al Qaeda figure in January.

U.S. intelligence has warned for more than a year that elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped and strengthened in the tribal areas, where the Pakistani government has almost no authority. Pakistani military efforts in the borderlands have had little effect.

“There may be some new parameters set on outside types of intervention,” said a Western official in Pakistan, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But I think we will still be able to achieve certain objectives that would be in everyone’s interests.”

Closer civilian oversight of Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence services is one expected change under the new administration, said a senior figure in the ruling coalition, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

In the past, the Pakistani intelligence services helped nurture the Taliban and other militant groups, seeing them as a means of challenging India over Kashmir and keeping neighboring Afghanistan quiescent.

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Even while promising changes in government strategy for dealing with the militants, Gillani, the prime minister, stressed in his policy address that Pakistan and the Americans wanted many of the same things.

“It is our fight too,” he said.

But Gillani and other senior coalition figures have suggested that they want to see far greater emphasis on education and economic aid in the impoverished tribal areas.

Officials in the new government, including Gillani, have raised the idea of talks with the militants -- but not without conditions. The new prime minister said the government would be willing to negotiate with insurgents who laid down their arms.

Other leaders, though, say many of the insurgents fall into a gray area. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose religious party has allied itself with the ruling coalition, said someone should not be branded a terrorist just for having devout religious beliefs.

“It is difficult to divide humanity on the basis of who is an extremist and should be eliminated, and who is a moderate and can be lived with,” he told lawmakers.

Negroponte, at the end of his visit, told reporters in the port city of Karachi that some extremists were “irreconcilable” and negotiations with them would be impossible.

“I don’t see how you can talk to these kinds of people,” he said.

Militants clearly hope to drive a wedge between the new government and the U.S. over the issue. A leader of Pakistan’s Taliban, Maulana Faqir Mohammed, said he would welcome talks with Pakistani leaders.

“Our war is with America,” Mohammed said.

Many Pakistanis have bitter memories of undiminished American support for Musharraf during a period of de facto martial law last year, during which thousands of political opponents were thrown in jail. Days after the start of that crackdown, Negroponte, testifying before Congress, described Musharraf as an “indispensable” ally.

In Karachi, asked for his current assessment of a leader now vulnerable to impeachment by a hostile parliament, the envoy paused.

“He is of course president of the country,” he said of Musharraf. Whatever the Pakistani people decide about his ultimate political fate, Negroponte said, “we will certainly respect.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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