WASHINGTON DC, Aug 20, 2005 | ISSN: 1684-2057 | www.satribune.com

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US Diplomats Think Ch. Shujaat Becoming Musharraf's Biggest Challenger

By Shaheen Sehbai

WASHINGTON, August 20: Senior US diplomats in Pakistan and in the State Department are genuinely intrigued about the display of an almost unbelievable confrontationist posture against General Pervez Musharraf, adopted by the most unlikely of politicians in today’s Pakistani spectrum --- the always obedient servant of the military establishment, Choudhry Shujaat Hussain.

These diplomats say on all key issues on which Musharraf wanted to curb the jihadis, or their political supporters, Choudhry Shujaat Hussain took a diametrically opposed line. What they cannot believe is that the Choudhry always won. The major issues they cite as examples are the handling of Madrassas, expulsion of foreign Islamic students, inclusion of religion column in passports, getting close to the liberal political parties like PPP, soft peddling the Hasba Bill of the MMA and rejecting any changes in the Islamic Hudood laws as proposed by Musharraf.

The Balochistan crisis was another such issue as Musharraf had vowed to sort out the insurgents saying they would not know what hit them, but Shujaat forced the political path on Musharraf.

It is natural for the head of the ruling political party anywhere to take up these issues of national import, but what the diplomats are confused about is that on every occasion Shujaat has embarrassed Musharraf, has succeeded in reversing what Musharraf may have claimed publicly with full military confidence and has gotten away with it.

More important than that, the US diplomats cannot understand where Shujaat was deriving his strength from, because the very nature of the man, and his entire politics, has always been subservient to the whims and desires of the Establishment. He has always been on the correct side of the powers ruling the country, thus cleverly avoiding any accountability or worse, political persecution.

Shujaat’s politics has been so crafty that despite being the main accused for the corruption of the Nawaz Sharif era and despite the fact that he was in the center of the Cooperatives scandal in which billions were looted from the innocent public, he not only escaped unscathed but was preferred by Musharraf to be made the most important political ally after the 1999 coup.

So what and who is now pushing Shujaat to take positions which embarrass Musharraf, the most powerful man in the country? This is the key question US diplomats are wondering about.

At recent meetings with US diplomats in Washington I had the genuine feeling that it was not Shujaat who was bothering them. It were his secret supporters and the strength they have given him to confront Musharraf which is of prime concern.

When I tried to probe one diplomat on this issue, he was evasive but certainly agreed with me in the undertones that the only people who enjoy such status and power are some of the Punjabi Corps Commanders of General Musharraf’s Army.

If Shujaat was speaking or acting on their behalf, it was a matter of grave concern for the Washington Establishment which has committed, whether anyone admits it or not, the mistake of putting all its eggs in the Musharraf basket.

In fact our discussion at one point took a very interesting turn when the diplomat asked me a point blank question: “Would you like to support a liberal and enlightened Musharraf or would you prefer a conservative Jihadi General who is supported politically by Shujaat and company. Keep in mind the consequences for the Press and politicians in that latter scenario,” he asked.

I was confused. I told him I would support an enlightened and liberal leader but not a General who says something in the morning and goes back on it in the evening or who does not know what is going on after 9 pm any way. But my counter question was: “Why are you asking me this question. Is there a threat to Musharraf?”

The diplomat would not say anything but his thrust of argument was that since everyone knows Shujaat Hussain and his politics, the way he has been acting in recent months confronting Musharraf, it can only mean that Musharraf is either helpless in stopping Shujaat or he knows where he is coming from and prefers to eat the humble pie and backtracks on his public declarations about critical national policy issues, whenever Shujaat opposes him.

I was sort of surprised at the logic and force of these arguments as having known Choudhry Shujaat Hussain for years, it was incomprehensible for me to imagine that a man like him, with all the dirty political baggage that he carries, he would become the man calling the shots and that too to embarrass a military dictator in full form who has support of all the key international power centers.

But for the US diplomats, Shujaat represents the changing face of the Pakistan polity and probably he has assumed the role of the political wing of the Jihadi forces, included among them the Jihadi army officers.

Stories about differences between Shujaat and Musharraf have been appearing in Pakistani media off and on and it is well known that when Musharraf wanted to replace Zafarullah Jamali, he had the Lahore whizzkid Humayun Akhtar Khan in mind as the next Prime Minister but it was Shujaat who stopped him.

Likewise Musharraf's tryst with Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari and PPP in recent months was also sabotaged very effectively by Shujaat who declared publicly that he would not let Musharraf and Benazir get together. The handling of Asif Zardari’s return to Lahore from Dubai and the thrashing PPP workers got from Punjab police when Zardari was first released from prison testify to this hard line stance, directly defying Musharraf.

So I asked the US diplomat why was it that they were not pressing Musharraf to make alliances with genuine liberal and enlightened political forces in the country if he was feeling so threatened by Shujaat Hussain, the new front man for Jihadis.

This million dollar question was never answered but what left me wondering was whether Musharraf was really so weak now that he cannot control a politician like Shujaat Hussain.

If that be so, then it is not hard to imagine what his position would be if he were to seek alliances with the genuinely popular political leadership, mainly represented by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Any popular leader would not allow him concessions that would seem to be a betrayal of the public trust and demands of democratic norms.

Musharraf is thus caught between the rock and the hard place as on the one hand he has to keep on conceding and making colossal political concessions to the likes of Choudhry Shujaat Hussain and his supporters, even to his deep public embarrassment, and on the other he has to talk and negotiate a political deal with politicians who would not be ready to concede much in such a situation.

But the US diplomats and other experts do believe that the better option for Musharraf is to immediately start talking to the enlightened political leadership in and outside the country, give them some meaningful concessions, get for himself a dignified exit, get them on board in a way that they can jointly confront the hidden jihadis within the Establishment and the political front man of these jihadis, Choudhry Shujaat and his clan. The alternative would be a loss for not only Musharraf but his Enlightened Moderation as well.

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