May issue 2006
Handle with Care
Lately, Washington’s policy-makers have turned an attentive ear to Islamabad’s recently-expressed concerns that US statements on the future of democracy in Pakistan are playing to the opposition’s gallery, creating additional domestic tensions for General Musharraf, which he can most certainly do without.
Taking these concerns seriously, American officials have now hugely diluted their position on the so-called democracy benchmarks for Pakistan. They have taken to using the kind of fluff on the subject that does not grate on Islamabad’s taut nerves.
Consider the following sample from an interview Richard A Boucher, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, gave last month to a local channel. The point under discussion was General’s Mushararf’s uniform:
“Again, another particular piece of the big picture. What’s important is to see the progress, to see the movement towards democratic leadership, civilian leadership for Pakistan. But exactly how the uniform issue is addressed, I’ll leave that to Pakistanis… President Musharraf has said it is (an internal matter). It’s an internal matter but it’s also an issue that we recognise is important. But it’s also one that we think President Musharraf is trying to address.”
This is pure fudge, grammatically bland, and cooked to soothe Islamabad’s anxiety on the uniform issue.
And that’s not all. A friendly Washington is doing more: US officials seem to have, at least publicly, settled for “procedural authenticity” of democracy in Pakistan. ‘As long as rules are adhered to and procedures are transparent, all is well’ is Washington’s new threshold of tolerance for the present system.
There is a studied silence on General Musharraf’s steps towards restoration of democracy or simply appreciation of the distance he claims Pakistan has travelled towards a genuine participatory system.
The US believes that the election commissioner “is committed to playing a very key role of ensuring that elections are free and fair under the Pakistani constitution.” It also endorses that there is an “an independent Election Commission.”
In order of priority, the US has carefully marked the signposts on the road to democracy “as part of the overall development of Pakistani society to achieve a more stable society, a more open society, a more democratic society, a more prosperous society.”
Washington has also started to mix its rhetoric about the need for “free and fair elections in 2007â€³ with long reiterations of the virtues of the present set-up.
Here is Mr. Boucher, wielding the trowel of trite phrases, again laying it on thick. The subject was the upcoming elections: “You know, we’re a long way from that election, in some ways. We’re getting closer all the time. We’ve been talking for a long time about the direction that Pakistani society has taken, the sort of moderate direction, the more open direction. We have attributes here that some other countries don’t have — we have a free press, we have some degree of government accountability. We have seen local elections. We have very active political parties. So there are a lot of things that are headed in the right direction here. And it’s a direction that we support.”
President Bush’s damp-squib visit, too, deliberately avoided meetings with the opposition leaders in Pakistan — a post he touched in India. Insiders say that this was a sure signal to his friend in Pakistan that his domestic sensitivities are being factored in as Washington weighs its future options in Pakistan.
The opposition parties view this as a setback to the attempt to wrest power back from the General. They had started to pin their hopes on “moral backing” from Washington in their quest for “complete civilian supremacy.” Clearly, they under-estimated the strength of the bond that exists between Bush and Mush.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.