Stumbling Toward a Plan B in Pakistan?

As WPR Editor-at-Large Roland Flamini pointed out in a commentary piece last week, the initial reaction of the Bush administration to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto did not inspire confidence that the administration had a Plan B if their effort to broker a power-sharing between Bhutto and Musharraf did not pan out.

This week, however, several news reports make it clear that there is a lot of administration activity surrounding Pakistan, even if the reports don’t paint a clear picture of a unified plan. If anything, the administration appears to be moving on several different fronts at once to try to ensure that Pakistan remains stable and democratic, and that pressure continues to be put on Islamist militants in the country’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

For example, the Christian Science Monitor reported Jan. 3 that the United States had begun to “gingerly” reach out to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif:

. . . recognizing that President Musharraf is weakened and increasingly isolated, the US is taking the pragmatic step of cautiously reaching out to other possible winners in Pakistan’s political strife.

The US action “recognizes that, very likely if there is going to be a viable and acceptable leader of the opposition in the near future, it’s going to be Nawaz Sharif,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the United States is also reaching out to the two top leaders in Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party: her widower Asif Ali Zardari, who has assumed stewardship of the party until Bhutto’s 19-year-old son returns from Oxford; and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who “is the party candidate to become prime minister if the PPP winsthe largest vote in the Feb. 18 elections and forms a coalitiongovernment.”

On Saturday, in his weekly column for WPR, Corridors of Power, Flamini identified another candidate for U.S. attention: Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani:

Unlike the blustering Musharraf, the general waiting in the wings is reclusive and at the same time popular with the army, but the apparent contradictions in his background make him hard to read.

Before taking over as army chief from Musharraf, he was director of the murky Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, known to have long standing ties with the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists. . . . But Kiyani was a longtime friend of Benazir Bhutto, having been her military aid from 1988-1990. Last summer, he helped to negotiate her political deal with Musharraf, and her return to Pakistan. He attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and had — as a U.S. State Department spokesman put it — “some long term interaction” with senior American military officers and CIA staffers.

Kiyani’s friendship with Bhutto was one reason why the Bush administration backed his appointment to head the army. At the same time, although not a member of Musharraf’s inner circle, he is also loyal to the beleaguered president. The present crisis may test that loyalty.

The New York Times picked up on the story today with an article devoted to Kiyani (they spell his name “Kayani”) as a potential savior of Pakistan:

Over the last several months, a little-known, enigmatic Pakistani general has quietly raised hopes among American officials that he could emerge as a new force for stability in Pakistan, according to current and former government officials. But it remains too early to determine whether he can play a decisive role in the country.

Kiyani was also mentioned prominently in a Washington Post piece today on the U.S. search for options in Pakistan, saying U.S. officials hope the general “will support more robust efforts involving U.S. intelligence and military operatives targeting al-Qaeda’s terrorist sanctuaries in the country.”

That story also mentions the push by some administration officials for expanding CIA efforts to covertly target al-Qaida elements in Pakistan’s northwest. The New York Times broke that story in a front-page piece on Sunday.

Why are Bush administration officials talking to the New York Times about potential plans for covert action inside Pakistan? The “bureacuratic infighting” that surrounds the proposal, as the Post story put it, could be the answer to that question, although it’s also possible U.S. officials were floating a trial balloon to gauge Pakistani reaction. That reaction, according to several reports today, has not been particularly positive.

So what’s to come of Pakistan? If Pakistani Briton novelist Mohsin Hamid is to be believed, the country is further from the abyss than many believe. Writing in the Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section, Hamid — whose novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year — reports that Pakistan’s civil society is showing signs that it will be able to resist the shock of Bhutto’s assassination:

Little more than a week has passed since Bhutto’s death, but life in Lahore is almost normal again. I am amazed by Pakistan’s resilience, by this nation’s power to pick itself up and carry on. But change is in the air. Opposition parties are uniting against the Musharraf-led establishment. Elections, even though they have been postponed until Feb. 18, seem poised to deliver a powerful rebuke to the current regime, unless of course they are rigged.

In the United States, there will be newspaper columns and television talk shows dedicated to “loose nukes” and the “war on terror.” Here in Pakistan, one can see signs of people coming together. Scare stories notwithstanding, it is possible (although by no means certain) that out of this tragedy the world’s sixth-largest nation may succeed in finding its voice — and with that the chance for a better future.

Let’s hope he’s right.