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Sharif as power centre worries US
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

As Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf prepares to give up his duties as chief of the army and serve as a civilian president, the Bush administration is concerned about the re-emergence of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a power centre in Pakistani politics, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Senior US officials told the paper that they worry Sharif’s “potential role in any new Pakistani government could undermine efforts to hunt down Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, as well as hinder broader initiatives to modernise Pakistan’s economy and society”.

“They cite Sharif’s political alliance with Islamist parties and his alleged past weaknesses in coordinating counter-terrorism actions with the USA when he served as Prime Minister in the late 1990s,” the paper reported.

“Sharif’s agenda is different. His agenda is to walk away from advances” made in Pakistan targeting the promotion of women and civil society, a senior US official working on Pakistan told the Journal.” We are really talking about moving back to the 90s, which means weak political parties. What’s the interest in that for Pakistan’s stability?”

Sharif was deposed by Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999. Since his return to Pakistan on Sunday from eight years in exile, Sharif has announced his intentions to run for his old job in the January 8 elections.

The Bush administration has been working to forge a political alliance between Musharraf and another former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, both viewed as pro-western leaders, the Journal said.

In an essay “Pakistan with or without Musharraf,” Michael Krepon of the Henry L.Stimson Centre in Washington says: “What would be worse for Pakistan and the United States. If Musharraf stays or if he goes?

With great hesitation, I have come to the following conclusions: First, the political trends lines within Pakistan are likely to grow worse the longer Musharraf remains in any position of leadership. Second, the corporate interests of the Pakistan army with respect to counter-terrorism, control of the country’s nuclear assets, and in handling troubled ties with Washington are unlikely to change appreciably if or when Musharraf goes. And third, the longer Musharraf stays, the greater the difficulties Washington can expect on all three fronts.”

Sharif and his supporters deny US charges that the former Prime Minister is soft on terrorism. They cite extensive efforts by the Sharif government to help President Bill Clinton’s administration hunt down Osama Bin Laden. They said Sharif worked extensively for peace with India despite an invasion by Musharraf’s military of Kargil in 1999.

“US officials said their concerns with Sharif stretch beyond terrorism. They cite an attempt by Sharif’s government in the 1990s to adopt strict Islamic penal codes. The politician’s supporters said the step was an effort to alleviate a case overload in the regular courts,” the Journal reported.

Some US officials said Washington might be able to cooperate with Sharif if he becomes Prime Minister again. “There’s probably some bitterness towards us” held by Sharif, another US official told the Journal. “But a few months down the road, I believe we’d probably have a working relationship.”

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