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Night of the general

india Updated: Sep 04, 2008 21:45 IST
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The attack by helicopter-borne American commandos in South Waziristan, which resulted in the death of 20 women and children, will have serious implications for Pakistan's presidential elections on Saturday and may lead to the Pakistan army reasserting itself politically.

Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), was quoted saying soon after the attack that global terrorism was the biggest challenge facing Pakistan and that his party would continue to stand by the United States. In contrast were the reactions of the Pakistan army and the civil service. Major General Athar Abbas, the official military spokesman, said, “The Pakistani army reserved the right to retaliate to protect Pakistani citizens and soldiers against aggression.” Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir summoned US Ambassador Anne Patterson and told her that “the cross-border raid was a gross violation of Pakistani territory, which was tantamount to a grave provocation…. The incident could fuel hatred and violence.” The Pakistan army, which has a visceral hatred for Zardari, seeing him as a US stooge, will use this incident to interfere in the presidential elections.

According to a source in the Pakistan security establishment, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is trying to ensure the victory of Nawaz Sharif's candidate, former Chief Justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui. If all the members of the PPP, Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Awami National Party and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl vote for Zardari, he could notch up 348 votes. The ISI is working to get Mushahid Hussain Syed, the presidential candidate of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, to withdraw in favour of Siddiqui. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and PML(Q) together have 290 votes. The ISI is also influencing independents, members of smaller parties and legislators from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to support Siddiqui.

Although General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, is against interfering in politics, there are indicators that the ISI and the army will use the political chaos to reassert themselves. In a couple of years from now, the first generation of fundamentalist Islamists recruited during the regime of Zia-ul-Haq will rise to major-general and lieutenant-general ranks. And the last generation of relatively secular generals — who modelled themselves on Sandhurst or West Point — is slated for retirement soon, with seven lieutenant generals stepping down at one go next month. Fortunately for India, the two most senior generals, who are relatively professional and secular — General

Tariq Majid, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kayani — are due to retire in 2010. But the current head of the ISI, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, will continue for a year longer.

To ensure that fundamental Islamists do not gain control of the Pakistan army, India needs to create extensive dossiers on candidates, especially of the 10 powerful corps commanders, and see if it can use the change of guard in the Pakistan army brass to its advantage.