PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Martial law in Pakistan continues and thousands remain in jails. Islamist militants and Taliban fighters are reported to be gaining ground in Afghanistan and even in Pakistan itself. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visited Pakistan over the past weekend. He spent hours in discussions with President Musharraf and Pakistan’s deputy army commander, General Kayani, but restricted his contact with leaders of the opposition to a thirty-minute phone conversation with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Meanwhile, a newly constituted supreme court packed with Musharraf handpicked judges have upheld his right to be elected as president of Pakistan for another term. The only tangible relief for the democratic forces appears to be 3,000 of the 15,000 people imprisoned since November 3 have been released. Joining me to analyze these developments is the Real News senior news analyst, Aijaz Ahmad. Aijaz, how significant is the release of these 3,000 prisoners? Is it connected to Negroponte’s visit?
AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Well, just before the visit, you know, there were all these threats of the long march.
JAY: This was to be a big, massive demonstration.
AHMAD: That’s right. And at that time, they just picked up thousands of people from various political parties. They were not going to be held for any length of time anyway. Negroponte probably said to Musharraf, since you are not going to do anything substantive, make a couple of symbolic gestures. So en masse they have released 3,000 people. The other side, you see, is that important figures like the president of the supreme court the bar association are still in prison.
JAY: What did Negroponte want in going to Pakistan, and what did he get?
AHMAD: My sense is that the American priority certainly is that Pakistan play a much more aggressive role both in Waziristan, or, rather, the whole of northwest Pakistan, where now the insurgency is very widespread, as well as in Afghanistan. Second, he went there to see if the deal that the United States had been trying to make between Benazir and Musharraf could be revived. It had fallen through in October. But I think essentially it is also to personally judge the temper of the senior commanders, how solidly they are behind Musharraf.
JAY: This is the commanders of the Pakistan military.
AHMAD: That’s right.
JAY: And if I understand it correctly, if you want to deal with who rules Pakistan, you’re talking about the high command.
AHMAD: Yes. I have argued since the beginning of that what comes out of this crisis will depend not on the lawyers’ movement, not even essentially, ultimately, whether or not Americans want to get rid of Musharraf personally, but on what this high command decides.
JAY: In the Pakistani press now—not on television, ’cause I don’t think there’s any Pakistani television left other than state television—they’ve coined a phrase for Musharraf. They’re calling him Busharraf. What is this relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan? Busharraf implies a kind of a puppet.
AHMAD: This phrase started getting used in Pakistan soon after a September 11 turnaround in Pakistan’s policy, led by Musharraf. Here, suddenly, he was being asked to do the opposite of what he had been doing until then, and he did it. And the more anger there is about the way Pakistan itself has become an instrument of U.S. policy in the region, the more this sort of phrase becomes widespread, and now it is respectable enough to appear in newspapers like the Dawn.
JAY: What U.S. policy is antagonizing Pakistanis? I mean, I guess the obvious one is support for Musharraf himself.
AHMAD: No, it is not so much the support for Musharraf, because the United States has supported every ruler that has ever come. You know, it has supported Benazir as much as it has supported Musharraf. It is in fact the fury that has developed over a long period of time, since the beginning of the Afghanistan war. The secular middle classes got very angry with the United States for using Pakistan as the staging ground for Jihadi forces in Afghanistan, and kept saying this is going to ruin our own country. So that is the secular opposition to the United States. Then, after September 11, the United States makes a hundred and eighty degree turnaround and tells the Pakistan army and the whole establishment to go after the Jihadis. So now the Jihadis are angry. So you had antagonized the secular forces before, and now you have also antagonized the Jihadis.
JAY: But aren’t the secular forces fearsome of the Jihadi forces?
JAY: I mean, these Jihadi forces, if they ever had more power, their first target is going to be the secular forces.
AHMAD: You see the disenchantment with Musharraf began of the secular middle classes when Musharraf came in and everyone had perceived him as being secular, progressive, enlightened officer and expected him to go after the jihadis. That war has to be fought. The problem is that Musharraf has started compromising with them and still compromises. You know, the Islamicist laws, for example, are still on the books. The Madrassas, that is to say the Muslim seminaries, children’s seminaries which produce most of these jihadis, are still functioning.
JAY: And mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, as I understand it.
AHMAD: Funded very often by Saudi Arabia or the other sheikdoms, Gulf sheikdoms, and so on.
JAY: And I think more than a million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
AHMAD: Yes, yes.
JAY: Many of whom, all the kids going to Madrassas, many of these Madrassas funded by Saudi Arabia.
AHMAD: Yes. And they’re also very often run by the Islamicist political parties, which have become so strong. That is the other resentment among the urban middle classes. These parties, until 1980, used to be completely marginal in Pakistani societies, now come to great wealth and affluence and influence and power, because they are tied up with this whole network of the Jihadis and the Madrassas and so on and so forth.
JAY: Which includes the narco trade from Afghanistan.
AHMAD: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes.