November 13, 2007

Bhutto Aligning With Sharif

Pretty soon, we will need scorecards to keep up with the shifting alliances in Pakistan. As Pervez Musharraf slapped Benazir Bhutto with a week-long house detention to keep her from attending rallies, the former Prime Minister demanded that Musharraf step down from all offices. Bhutto also publicly suggested an alliance between her faction and that of Islamist Nawaz Sharif, a scenario guaranteed to send jitters through Washington:

Former premier Benazir Bhutto urged Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf to quit as president Tuesday as she sought to form a united front with other opposition leaders against the military ruler.

In her most direct challenge yet to Musharraf since he declared emergency rule, Bhutto said he was a failed leader whose time was up and vowed never to serve under him in government. ...

From inside the house she moved to forge a coalition of opposition parties in an apparent bid to isolate Musharraf ahead of the elections.

She said she was ready for an alliance with another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, spoke with former cricket star Imran Khan and agreed with a key Islamist to launch a "joint struggle" against Musharraf.

That will be taken as a major blow to the US fight against the Islamists in Pakistan -- and force a decision between democracy and realpolitik at the White House. Nawaz Sharif represents those who ally themselves with the Taliban, at least philosophically if not electorally. The US was happy enough to see him excluded from the negotiations over democratic reforms, and hoped to see Bhutto and Musharraf create a strong middle-class, centrist coalition.

A coalition between Bhutto and Sharif would mean trouble for the fight against the Islamists in the north provinces. At least with Musharraf, the West has someone who will fight the radicals, even if diffidently at times. Bhutto has used strong rhetoric against the radicals, but that was before she despaired of any alliance with Musharraf. If she allies with Sharif, she will necessarily have to temper that rhetoric and any action against the Islamist extremists.

And that's not the only bad sign, either. Bhutto met with the leader of a coalition of radical Islamist parties on a potential alliance as well. That could possibly be good news, as it might mean that Bhutto could convince them to end their war if Musharraf stepped down. That seems rather optimistic for a prediction, however; it looks more like Bhutto sees Musharraf as more dangerous than the Islamists now, a conclusion Washington will not share.

Chaos may be just around the corner for Musharraf. Hopefully he has prepared his golden parachute, because it looks like jumping time is almost at hand.


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