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Telling it as it is to America

An article appeared in The News on October 23 narrating the discussion that took place in the meeting with Senator Tom Daschle, I feel the participants were quite blunt and open in telling the former US Senator their true feelings, almost what I would have done given the opportunity, but the question is will it make a difference.

Anjum Niaz

The News: Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tom Daschle was in Islamabad. He is the former US Senate majority leader. His mission was to take back to Washington snapshots of the coming elections in Pakistan. Hes a power engine in the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on Capitol Hill. His delegations arrival coincided with Benazir Bhuttos caravan of democracy getting botched up by suicide bombings.

More than the elections, Daschle appeared preoccupied with violence when he opened up a dialogue with members of PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency). Shahid Hamid, once a Farooq Leghari loyalist and former governor Punjab gave an opening statement on PILDATs behalf, saying the electoral process was at a “sensitive stage. Among his team were Lt-Gen. (retd) Asad Durrani, former director-general Inter-Services Intelligence and military intelligence; Dr Ijaz Shafi Gilani, chairman Gallup, Pakistan; Tasneem Noorani, former interior secretary; Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director PILDAT and Aasiya Riaz, joint director PILDAT.

Tom Daschle: How concerned are you about violence and what happened to Ms Bhutto yesterday?

Shahid Hamid: Benazir Bhutto targeted herself.

Tom Daschle (pursing his lips): Thats a very provocative statement?

Shahid Hamid: The impression here is that she will hand over A.Q Khan and allow America to fight its war on Pakistani soil when she becomes the prime minister. Naturally shes made enemies.

Tom Daschle: The lesson then is not to express yourself?

Tasneem Noorani: She anticipated an attack. She had already allied herself with an unpopular military government which was receiving active support from the US and the UK.

Asad Durrani: Senator, your interest appears focused on Benazir Bhutto? What was the need for her to make such provocative statements?

Tom Daschle: It means that there can be no open dialogue then? Intimidation appears to quell a dialogue? Perhaps demilitarizing the political process is the first step towards fair and free elections. I am curious to know why the ISI plays such a significant role. It is antithetical to free and fair elections.

Asad Durrani: The US prescription for fair and free elections means to engage with the General. The ISI is an instrument of the state and if you want the ISI out of politics then the military must get out first. Civil society has not been allowed a voice in the last few years. Benazir Bhutto has been saying things which have not gone down well with Pakistanis. People are now looking at a political scenario where battle lines have been drawn between pro-Musharraf (Benazir Bhutto and America) forces and rest of the political parties and civil society. An ideological divide has set in. Benazir Bhutto said that she expected an assassination attack at the airport tarmac on her arrival.

Ijaz Gilani: Yesterdays attack has been the bloodiest in our political history killing 150 people and maiming 500. It never happened before? Why did it happen now? The answer is that the mainstream in Pakistan is heavily tilted against Musharraf as seen in the recent International Republican Institute (IRI) poll. The General and Benazir Bhutto are unacceptable to 70 per cent of the population. Therefore when a violent action, like Thursdays bombing takes place, it finds acceptability among the general masses. This is an unfortunate twist of circumstances but Musharraf has encouraged violence. I am deeply surprised that in a country which is deeply polarized, political parties have not played their due role in the last 40 years.

The streets are quiet. Politics instead, is being conducted in courts and in the mass media! General Musharraf has thrown a gauntlet to the people: if you show up on the streets to challenge me then Ill concede to you, otherwise winning an argument in the courts is not worth it. I dont care.

The point to mull over for us all is: Why hasnt politics appeared on the streets? I am troubled that people from different backgrounds and the general public want to play politics by taking their case to the courts where the establishment twists the law.

Tom Daschle: Whos the alternative to Musharraf and Bhutto? Nawaz Sharif unlike Benazir Bhutto has no street power as recently seen on his arrival? After 9/11, intelligence gathering has reached dangerous levels around the world. Its been extremely harmful. It means that the ISI and Musharraf will use more military intelligence in the name of security to advance his political goals?

Shahid Hamid: When there was a constitutional impasse between Nawaz Sharif and president Leghari in 1997, the army chief Gen Jehangir Karamat, who was abroad, received frantic calls from both the gentlemen. They wanted him to intervene. But Karamat stayed away. You will notice that at every cabinet meeting of Nawaz Sharif, General Musharraf was seen seated next to the prime minister. He was elevated as the most important man by Sharif. What does that tell us?

In America, the defence budget gets debated by the lawmakers. In Pakistan, we have one-line entry!

Tasneem Noorani: The role of the ISI will expand in the years to come.

Shahid Hamid: How much more can it expand?

Bilal Mehboob: A number of US institutions like the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute are doing a good job in Pakistan, but when the US administration expresses a tilt towards the military government here, the entire work of such institutions gets diluted. We want you to carry back this message that while we respect and value the fine job being done by NDI and IRI, the Bush administration must be neutral and not take sides that openly.

Asad Durrani: The only silver lining that I can show you is that the majority of military men in Pakistan today have no interest in getting involved with politics. I know many dont believe what I say, but thats the reality.

Aasia Riaz: I agree with Gen. Durrani. The only way forward is for the army to step back and allow democracy to move on. While Benazir Bhutto agreed to play ball with the establishment and was allowed to stage a return, Nawaz Sharif sat back. But hes a force that must not be dismissed lightly.

Ijaz Gilani: Street power does not signify success at the polls as we saw in the 1970 elections. The religious parties came across as a dominant force showing their numbers on the streets, yet out of 300 seats, they only bagged eight in the national assembly. Similarly in 1997 elections, Benazir Bhutto was badly routed in Punjab, Frontier, while she only won 16 seats from rural Sindh. So while the PPP may be seen as the mainstream party today, all that is needed is a five percent tilt in Punjab to keep her from becoming the next prime minister!

She may not win because she has aligned herself with the anti-people group comprising US and Musharraf. America has become a stakeholder in our political affairs just as the army is a stakeholder.

Sheila Fruman, country director NDI Pakistan: How can the role of the ISI be curbed?

Shahid Hamid: We dont have a law that regulates the ISI like you have in the US regarding the intelligence agencies. In the 2002 elections the ISI played a major role in prevailing upon the local leaders and offering them its support if they voted for the PML Q. One is hoping that the ISI will not repeat its performance in 2008 elections. The actual rigging does not happen on the polling day but starts much in advance.

Tom Daschle: What happened in the 2002 elections?

Shahid Hamid: Crucial people in police and local administration sympathetic to the military government were posted in strategic places. Entire villages surrendered under their pressure and voted for the candidates put up by the ISI.

Ijaz Gilani: Its public knowledge that the DG ISI selects his juniors that go down to the polling stations to ensure that votes get cast for their candidates.

Tom Daschle: Is there no law prohibiting such a practice?

Asad Durrani: Its permitted by law!

Tasneem Noorani: Senator, you appear to be excessively bothered with the role of the ISI. Elections have already been pre-rigged by the US and UKs open support of Musharrafs re-election as president. When have international forces ever sided with the interests of the people? Never. So why are we talking about fair and free elections?

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