Worldview Commentary No. 280 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

“The US: Blowing it in Pakistan, Again”

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Once again, the United States has blown it in Pakistan.

Consider the message reportedly conveyed last week by the former president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Tariq Mahmood, to US Ambassador Anne Patterson:

“You love democracy, you live in a democracy, why do you want to deprive us? You are always supporting the dictator.”

US policy in Pakistan remains stuck on two points. First, the war on terrorism blinds us to everything else. Second, General Pervez Musharraf – who prefers to call himself “President” after grabbing the post in a de facto coup d’etat – is indispensable in that war.

Neither view is accurate. Pakistan is a Muslim nation where the majority is moderate and opposes both Islamic fundamentalism and Al Qaeda terrorism. Unless we manage to alienate the moderate majority – which Washington seems hell bent on achieving – they are as determined as we are to defeat the suicide bombers who regularly attack their cities.

In this context, Musharraf is a liability, not an asset. In 1999 he seized power through a military coup. Last November he held on to power by suspending the Constitution and firing most of the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, just as the Court was expected to rule that as chief of the army he could not continue as President of Pakistan.

If proof of Musharraf’s unpopularity were needed, it came in the parliamentary elections in February. Even though Musharraf stacked the election rules against the opposition, they trounced his so-called political party, which is little more than an appendage of his personal power – or lack thereof.

The vote gave the US a golden opportunity to make amends with the Pakistani people. We could, and should, have told them: “Yes, we stood by General Musharraf all these years because he was our ally, but we respect your democratic choice. We will work with your newly chosen leaders. And we support your Constitution and the independence of your judiciary. We will support the reinstatement of the Supreme Court justices.”

Had we done that, we could have opened a new page with the Pakistani people. We could have been true to our principles.

We did neither. Instead we pressed the victorious parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party of the slain Benazir Bhutto, now led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – to do what neither wanted: to work with Musharraf.

And we opposed the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry. Shahbaz Sharif, a senior member of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, told the New York Times that Ambassador Patterson met with Mr. Zardari and suggested reinstating the Supreme Court judges – except for the Chief Justice.

Diplomatic sources (i.e., the US Embassy) reportedly think that the Chief Justice is not tough enough on terrorism. Last year he insisted on issuing writs of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects disappeared by the Pakistani military.

One can understand that the same US government which opposes habeas corpus for terrorist suspects at home opposes it in Pakistan as well. After 9/11 the CIA disappeared our terrorism suspects into incommunicado detention in secret prisons for years on end. The Administration has persistently opposed habeas corpus for prisoners at Guantanamo.

At home, the Administration has the right to be wrong; the courts can sort it out. But in Pakistan, our government has no right to promote its mistaken policy preferences by trying to block the reinstatement of the unconstitutionally sacked Chief Justice. If the Pakistani courts are deprived of their independence, they cannot credibly sort out anything.

Washington’s policy is not only wrong but seems not to be working. Mr. Zardari rejected Ambassador Patterson’s advice. On Sunday he agreed with Nawaz Sharif to form a coalition government. Within 30 days of Parliament’s convening, they plan to pass a resolution reinstating Chief Justice Chaudhry (along with 60 other judges fired by Musharraf).

Whether the Chief Justice will in fact be reinstated remains an open question. The legal issues under the Pakistani Constitution, as mangled by Musharraf during the period he suspended it in November and December, are tricky. Lawyers for the opposition parties contend that Parliament can reinstate Chaudhry by a simple majority vote. Lawyers for Musharraf counter that a two thirds majority is needed.

Musharraf knows that his political future turns on the outcome. If the Chaudhry Supreme Court is reinstated, it will likely rule that his election as President last October, while he was still head of the armed forces, was unconstitutional.

But if the dispute goes to the current Supreme Court, stacked by Musharraf, he might survive.

So there remains an opportunity for Washington to right its course. If we wish to be seen to stand for our principles, we should support the reinstatement of the unconstitutionally deposed Supreme Court. At minimum we should not be seen to oppose it.

Continuing on the current course will only further erode our tarnished image in Pakistan. And for what? Already General Musharraf has sent his bags out of the country. As a young officer he attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. Odds are he will soon return.


Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.