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IA-Forum Interview: Ahmed Quraishi

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IA Forum: What do you make of President Musharraf's decision to declare emergency rule?

Ahmed Quraishi: Gen. Musharraf is finally doing what President Putin did for Russia--stop democracy from turning into total chaos. Hopefully, he is also finally beginning to listen to what many of us have been telling him for man months now, that his original mandate was to impose tough political reforms and empower the Pakistanis so they begin to generate real leadership, and not prematurely hand the country over to a political elite that lacks real demoratic credentials. And thirdly, by declaring emergency rule, President Musharraf has thrown cold water on Washington's plans for a regime change in Islamabad. Washington's handpicked future ruler of Pakistan, Mrs. Benazir Bhutto, hurriedly left Pakistan a couple of days earlier and returned on Saturday only to come out of the airport and find everything changed. And one of her most trusted aides, Mr. Rehman Malik, the man who was doing the actual negotiations with Islamabad on behalf of Mrs. Bhutto, virtually escaped from Pakistan only hours before the declaration of emergency. I can only imagine the top guns at the U.S. Department of State scratching their heads at how quickly the entire scenario has changed in Pakistan.


IA Forum: What did you make of the decision in September by the Pakistani governemnt to deport former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif almost as soon as he entered the country after returning from exile?

Quraishi: I think simply put it showed the domestic plans of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. It was unexpected, and if we assume there are certain rules to the game as far as Pakistani politics are concerned, Mr Sharif tried to unilaterally add a new factor into the equation, and that was simply not acceptable. Not just to President Musharraf, but also to the Pakistani political establishment. They were not willing to accept Mr Sharif individually trying to change the equation. That was not acceptable.


IA Forum: So is he out of the picture now?

Quraishi: There's strong pressure, even among allies of President Musharraf, who are trying to convince him now to let Mr Sharif in so he could play a balancing act as far as [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto is concerned. Certainly this pressure on Musharraf was never there before the arrival of Ms Bhutto. So we are seeing now a lot of people advocating that Sharif be allowed to come back to Pakistan, and I think President Musharraf is favorable, he is not as adverse to it as he was when Sharif first tried to come back here.

So we might actually see Mr Sharif coming back pretty soon, because a lot of people within Pakistani domestic politics are not happy with the brand of politics Benazir Bhutto is trying to bring.


IA Forum: You mention Benazir Bhutto there. Her reception has been quite different, and there has been much talk of some sort of alliance with Musharraf in upcoming elections. Would this be in Pakistan's interests?

Quraishi: I don't think an alliance would be in Pakistan's interests at all. Domestically not at all. If we look at this from Washington's perspective, certainly it appears to be the right thing to do. But sitting here in Islamabad, I don't think so, because with the kind of statements she is giving nowadays with regard to A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, and on the war on terror, she is emerging every day as a burden on President Musharraf. And the very fact that she had joined hands with President Musharraf, well I would think that would mean the kiss of political death for President Musharraf.

President Musharraf is trying to survive, he has the benefit of the doubt of certain segments of the Pakistani population, by people who feel he is under certain pressure to do certain things they don't like in regard to the war on terror. But with Mrs Bhutto coming out openly with statements about restructuring the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence service], or allowing the Americans to conduct operations on Pakistani soil, or access to A.Q. Khan, that kind of stuff is going too far.

Musharraf faced several assassination attempts when he said things less than what Mrs Bhutto is saying these days, so imagine the situation with the kind of things she is saying. I think it is unworkable and we are already seeing a very strong resistance from the Pakistani military and political establishment and certainly from the intelligence community to giving Ms Bhutto any access to power.


IA Forum: There has been some criticism from Washington that Pakistan has not been doing enough to root out the Taliban along the border with Pakistan. Is this criticism fair?

Quraishi: I think it is partially right. But it would be wrong of the Americans to think that Pakistan would whole-heartedly eliminate each and every one of those people who are thought to be in league with the Taliban. The Pakistanis are after Al-Qaeda, there is no doubt about this. But as far as the Taliban are concerned, I don't think so.

It comes down to this. If Pakistan's legitimate security concerns and strategic interests are not catered to, the Americans should not expect the Pakistanis to whole-heartedly achieve everything that Washington wants. There has to be a balance. The Americans need to meet their own security and strategic needs in the region, but it cannot come at the expense of Pakistan's own security and strategic interests, it is as simple as that. It would be asking too much to ask Pakistan to sever all ties that it has cultivated over 30 years with different players in Afghanistan, to ask Pakistan to simply just cut off those ties, when there are many other people watching here in Islamabad who are seeing other countries in the region expanding their area of influence.

So you have a strong lobby in Islamabad that wants to work with the Americans - who have no problem with the Americans. We've had our ups and downs, but are good friends. Unfortunately, our legitimate security concerns aren't being addressed and as long as the situation stays like that, we will continue to face problems along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.


IA Forum: Pakistan has general elections coming up in January. Obviously a major priority for any incoming prime minister will be relations with neighboring India. What do you make of Pakistan-India relations, and do you have any concerns?

Quraishi: I think things are going good. The progress of dialogue, although slow on the key issue of the Kashmir dispute, has moved well in other areas. I think there's a strong lobby within the Indian ruling establishment that wants to resolve the issue with Pakistan. However, that lobby is being balanced by another lobby that is more hawkish - they don't want to concede any ground on a number of important issues.

I think that things will work out, but I think it is very disturbing that the hawkish elements in New Delhi are working on other issues that are disturbing for Pakistan. For example, it is no secret in Islamabad that the Pakistani government has compiled a body of evidence that shows certain, I would say groups, within the Indian ruling establishment who are working and creating contacts with separatists or terrorist elements, certainly along the border with Afghanistan.

Certainly the information I get from talking to different people here in Islamabad is that they do not accuse India as such, but they are more concerned with certain security agencies in India who are working on those lines, and those people may not have taken the political leadership in India completely on board on some of these things.

We have a long history in the relationship between Pakistan and India, in our security services, of tit for tat, and I think we're still watching some of that continue, despite the years of peace talks.

I'd also like to say that any government that comes in January or February after the election, it must be kept in mind that Pakistan's military will still retain its influence. Whoever is the new prime minister, they will have to take into account the concerns of the Pakistan military in regards to India. It is the Pakistani military that has pushed this peace process with India and there is no reason to believe the Pakistani military does not want this peace process to go forward.

But this military will not allow for unnecessary concessions to be given to India. Unfortunately, we have seen governments before, for example the government of former prime minister Bhutto, trying to convince the Pakistani establishment to give undue concessions to India, and that will not happen now, even if she comes to power.


IA Forum: What do you expect from January's elections?

Quraishi: Well, if President Musharraf goes ahead with his existing plan, and doesn't listen to the feedback he is getting from many people in Islamabad, if he goes ahead with elections fair and free and open to everybody, we're going to have a mess, basically.

Pakistani politics are really divisive. If things happened the way the United States wants them to happen then sure, they might ease political tensions in the country. But they would not lead to stability if that is what anybody is expecting. They would be disruptive, and with the security situation we have, I don't think it would lead to stability. On the other hand, if President Musharraf factors in some of the suggestions he is getting from some of the people here in Islamabad in regard to restructuring Pakistani politics, the elections in January might not end up leading to the kind of instability we are expecting them to lead to.

Frankly speaking, elections in Pakistan have never really led to stable government. We had the experience in the 1990s, where we had I think the fairest kind of selection we have seen in Pakistan in recent years. And what did they lead to? Unstable government and unstable politics that reflected badly on Pakistan's economy and all the strategic issues important to the country.

So Gen. Musharraf, being a military man, has the power, if he chooses to, has the power to restructure these elections. And there is pressure on him to do so. But he has to balance this with the pressure he is getting from Washington and the international community. He will have to strike a balance.

It will have to be a mix of free and fair elections, democracy, but also he will have to take some decisions that people who would like to see an open system a full democracy, will not like.



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