President Musharraf's dismissal of Pakistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary might well be the last straw. There is speculation that the Bush administration is already contemplating a post-Musharraf Pakistan. But with or without Musharraf the problem confronting Pakistan will remain. It is likely to reach flashpoint this spring when the Taliban are expected to launch a major offensive. So let us focus primarily on the problem confronting Pakistan.
At the risk of appearing outrageously presumptuous, this scribe proposes actually to proffer advice to President Bush and President Musharraf. As things are, both leaders seem reeling. With passage of time both will inevitably demit office. But is it still possible that they could depart as winners, not losers?
Starting with the second term of President Bush, this column forecast a shift in US policies. Recalling efforts by past second-term US presidents to break the stranglehold of the powerful US vested interests that direct policies, it predicted that the Bush administration would attempt the same ' and that it might actually succeed.
President Bush continues to be battered for his flawed invasion of Iraq. He continues to repeat frequently the old rhetoric. His popularity ratings have plummeted. No matter.
Ignore the man and assess the administration. Ignore the posturing and consider the ground realities.
The neoconservatives who plunged America into the Iraq crisis are out of key positions. The North Korean crisis seems nearing resolution. Despite the fire and brimstone unleashed by America and Iran against each other, despite the dire predictions of imminent war made by the most respected media commentators in the West, the situation in Iran today offers more hope than despair. Contrary to dire prophets in the west, I had predicted a peaceful settlement in Iran. Current events do suggest that possibility.
As early as May 24, 2006, this column had projected Iran's nuclear crisis as a red herring. The real issue was about how damage control might be effected in Iraq so that US troops could withdraw. To achieve that, the US required Iran's cooperation. In the midst of loud nuclear-issue rattle, quiet talks continued on the Iraq situation. Eventually, the talks came out in the open ' after Iran publicly offered to discuss Iraq with the US.
The second projection was that, contrary to popular perception, the prime US motive in West Asia was not to grab Iraqi oil. It was to create a new Middle East. The existence of Israel had to be legitimized among the Arabs. The Arab Muslim world was divided between Sunnis and Shias. It was predicted that the US would exploit this division to extract leverage, and attempt simultaneously a just accommodation between Sunnis and Shias which would facilitate an acceptable settlement in Iraq.
It was pointed out that President Ahmadinejad's extremist utterances were but posturing, designed to recover for the Shias leadership of radical Islam. That leadership was usurped from the late Ayatollah Khomeini, a Shia, by Osama bin Laden, a Sunni. Iran's nuclear dispute, embroiling it with world powers, brought the international spotlight on Ahmadinejad and away from Osama. The recent war in the Lebanon made Hezbollah instead of Al Qaeda the rallying point for radical Islam.
The mutual recrimination between the US and Iran is now increasingly interspersed with conciliatory statements. Both sides know that a satisfactory settlement in Iraq would require endorsement by both. Meanwhile, US influence with Saudi Arabia, the acknowledged leader among Sunnis, is bearing fruit. The Saudi King and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, exchanged messages. They resolved to end Shia-Sunni disputes. Recently President Ahmadinejad met King Abdullah in Riyadh. Both support negotiations in Iraq. For the first time both Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with other West Asian nations, sat with Western representatives, including US officials, in a meeting in Baghdad to discuss the Iraq issue. Further meetings at a higher level are planned. The Saudis have presented to Israel a peace formula that would legitimize the existence of Israel. Prime Minister Olmert is studying the proposal.
The third projection was that an oil sharing formula would have to be worked out between the three autonomous regions of Iraq, each dominated by Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Recently, this too has been accomplished through an arrangement finalized by the Iraqi government. Now the formal demarcation of the three autonomous regions of a united federal Iraq awaits incorporation in the Iraqi constitution. That too might well happen.
But a clinching agreement eludes realization. Belligerent statements along with small steps towards reconciliation continue apace. Does a final agreement await an event? What could that event be? The question brings one to the fourth projection. And it makes South Asia central to a solution in West Asia.
It may be noted that the Hezbollah sword has been sheathed. It has not been discarded. Hezbollah leader Nasrullah has claimed that his organization should be treated as a political entity. Its militant role will be discarded only after the US delivers its part of what I believe is the unwritten bargain: namely, the dismantling of Al Qaeda, the Sunni sword arm. That is where Pakistan comes in.
The final item on the road to peace is fraught with danger for Pakistan. The West Asian peace process hinges on the dismantling of Al Qaeda, which is based in Pakistan's northern and western provinces. The effort to demolish Al Qaeda could easily tend to tear Pakistan apart. This challenge has to be met with rare wisdom and courage.
For the last 150 years the Pushtuns have brooked no outside control. The Taliban has been created from among them. There are over thrice the number of Pushtuns in Pakistan, compared to roughly ten million in Afghanistan. The Taliban cooperates with Al Qaeda but retains its own identity. Instead of an outright military solution that may never succeed, a just and bold peace offering might fruitfully be made to the Pushtuns.
They could be offered cultural freedom and self-rule. They could be allowed to unite across soft borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan even as international boundaries remained intact. In exchange, Taliban would have to abandon Al Qaeda. Minus Taliban support, Al Qaeda would collapse. This would necessitate a far-reaching settlement between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The settlement would, in turn, facilitate the emergence of a future South Asian Union. It would lay the foundation for settling Kashmir and other South Asian disputes. Pushtun sentiment would decisively influence the Taliban. Now is the time to pre-empt effectively the Taliban's spring offensive.
Let America and Pakistan dispassionately consider this proposal.
At stake is not the future of Musharraf. At stake is the future of Pakistan.