November 24, 2007

Sharif Returns Amid Bombings

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will return to Pakistan today as radical Islamists killed 35 people in two suicide attacks on military installations. Pervez Musharraf has apparently changed his mind about keeping Sharif in exile after meeting with Saudi leaders last week. Sharif adds more uncertainty about the direction of Pakistani politics in a month of roller-coaster changes:

Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf will allow his bitter rival Nawaz Sharif to return home tomorrow, ending seven years of exile in Saudi Arabia, Musharraf's spokesman said.

"Yes he will be allowed to land," retired General Rashid Qureshi told the Observer, referring to Sharif's planned arrival at Lahore airport this afternoon aboard a chartered Saudi jet.

Musharraf ejected Sharif, whom he deposed as prime minister in a 1999 coup, from Pakistan when he tried to return last September. Four hours after landing in Islamabad the burly politician was bundled onto a Saudi-bound airliner.

But the military ruler changed his mind earlier this week following a meeting with the Saudi monarch King Abdullah in Riyadh.

Qureshi said: "Discussions were carried out on Nawaz Sharif's return. The president said there is no issue, he can return if he wants to."

This puts a different spin on the ongoing political struggle in Pakistan. Earlier, Musharraf couldn't arrest Sharif's allies fast enough. Now he has decided to allow Sharif's return as he releases thousands of people detained in an emergency-order decree.

What happened? First, the new courts have installed Musharraf as civilian president, his biggest short-term goal. That gives Musharraf another five years of rule in Pakistan, albeit in partnership of some kind with its Parliament. The sudden subtlety of Benazir Bhutto and the uncontested return of Sharif indicates that they will go along with the election of Musharraf as long as he resigns his post as Army chief of staff, and will look to the upcoming parliamentary elections for political gain.

Second, the American intervention seems to have pressed Musharraf harder than first thought. Only two months ago, Musharraf bounced Sharif out of Pakistan when he attempted to return. After a visit from John Negroponte and a consultation with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, not only did Musharraf begin a massive release of political detainees but now he welcomes his most ardent political foe back from exile. Whatever message President Bush had for Musharraf, it apparently got received clearly.

Who does this benefit? Musharraf still needs to start fighting back against the radical Islamists. Despite many promises in the weeks of his PCO, that massive offensive has yet to materialize. Musharraf has spent more time jailing political opponents than fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. After his political maneuvering of the past few weeks, Musharraf will find himself in a weaker state for that offensive than ever before -- unless he can form an alliance with Bhutto and perhaps Sharif to marginalize the radicals. That seems unlikely now -- but it seemed equally unlikely that Musharraf would have allowed Sharif's return as late as this week.

Will Sharif's return herald a centrist coalition? Or will it undermine the Musharraf regime and create chaos where we can least afford it? Given the pace of events in Pakistan over the last few weeks, we probably won't have to wait long to find out.


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