Pakistan: Tumultuous Political Situation Continues

Posted in Pakistan | 25-Aug-08 | Author: Faryal Leghari| Source: Gulf Research Center

Faryal Leghari

August 18, a day that saw President Musharraf resigning under immense threat of impeachment by the ruling coalition, provided one more example of the tumultuous political situations Pakistan has witnessed over the past year. The situation, which remains fluid at present, is defined by complex contradictions that may further transform Pakistan's political landscape. The situation in Pakistan, taking into consideration its importance not only as a regional player but one whose stability has far reaching implications internationally, cannot be dismissed as a case of internal political upheavals. A stable and secure Pakistan is not only important for its own economic and political development but is also essential for defeating terrorism and securing stability in Afghanistan.

Political developments in the country are important for they have an impact on stability. The past few months since the February elections have seen a spiraling in economic crises with severe food and energy shortages, high inflation, and political instability with the issue of the restoration of a deposed judiciary and the contentious issue of the President's impeachment coming to the fore. Though the impeachment crisis is now over with Musharraf tendering his resignation citing that he was doing so in the larger interest of the country that could not face further political confrontations, the question remains as to whether there will be political stability.

The coalition of the two ruling parties - the PPP headed by Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari and PML-N led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - is also threatened because of the issue of restoration of the judiciary. It is rumored Mr. Zardari is not willing to reinstate Chief Justice Chaudhry because of fears that he may reverse the contentious National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). PPP sources, however, say that Zardari's hands are tied because of a deal with 'outside powers' pertaining to the issue of Musharraf resigning and being given indemnity. The PML-N has decided to part ways with the PPP in case this happens and the ousted judges are not restored. To top it all, Zardari is in the running for the Office of the President, an election the PPP has called for on September 6. Sharif's stand is that the judiciary issue be dealt with before the election of the President. He has made it clear that it is unacceptable to PML-N to support Zardari unless the controversial 17th Amendment, that not only allows the President to dissolve the parliament but also imparts extra powers to appoint the army chief, is removed. However, it is highly unlikely that Zardari would want a nominal office without the powers of this amendment.

The period leading upto Musharraf's resignation was one fraught with several developments. The feeble attempt by the government to bring the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency under the authority of the interior ministry led to an embarrassment for the government as directives were first issued and then withdrawn later while Prime Minister Gilani was on a visit to the US in July. If this was an attempt to control ISI's political wing, it was badly orchestrated and ill-timed. The ISI mainly deals with external affairs and already reports to the Prime Minister, a civilian office. The whole episode gave the impression that Islamabad lacked an effective government. Government sources were quick to lay the blame on the presidency that they alleged was busy undermining the coalition alliance and impeding governance. The ISI had been blamed for the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul by both the Afghan president Hamid Karzai and New Delhi. Karzai, besides alleging that the ISI was responsible for the blasts and was training the Taliban, has also gone to the extent of threatening to send Afghan forces into Pakistan to hunt down Taliban and exterminate them. Pakistan has reacted strongly and demanded proof of any alleged complicity of its intelligence agencies from both Delhi and Afghanistan. These episodes have left a bitter aftertaste and it is hoped that India and Pakistan will not let resort to blaming each other for the terror attacks in their respective countries that could also be staged by a third party to undermine the good progress in relations over the last few years.

The GCC states have officially avoided any direct involvement in Pakistan's domestic political happenings. They have only wished for Pakistan to achieve harmony and stability, especially in the post September 11 era and have remained neutral despite the fact that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have seen political wheeling and dealing by exiled leader Sharif and the self exiled Bhutto in the past eight years. Rumors of Saudi involvement - and of British and American efforts - in securing a safe passage and an indemnity package for beleaguered president Musharraf were fast doing rounds. Saudi Arabia, however, distanced itself from the rumor by denying that it had offered to host Musharraf in exile or that any such arrangement was being brokered.

Musharraf's era saw multi-billion dollar investments in Pakistan by countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Qatar, Bahrain, and even Oman, had initiated moves to develop investment and economic relations with Pakistan. Although many such projects have already taken root, it is assumed that investor confidence can only be gained and maintained if there is viable security. It is only natural that investors would be apprehensive about investing in a state that is facing instability, armed confrontation and, most of all, weak governance. The fumbling attempts by the government whether in a bid to govern or in shaping its economic policies are being observed as well. Moreover, Pakistan's problems in controlling the extremist threat from indigenous militant organizations like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), headed by Baitullah Mehsud, and other like-minded groups that openly vow allegiance to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in its tribal areas are of immediate concern to the GCC states. The nexus between Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistani groups is one that is dangerous not only for the stability of Pakistan and Afghanistan but concerns the Gulf directly with many Gulf nationals being recruited and trained by the Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pakistan is at a critical juncture with an ongoing war in its tribal areas against the local militants and the TTP, the threat of reprisals against the state and innocent civilians by the same groups in the form of terror attacks, a worsening strife in Kashmir that could also be exploited by the Al-Qaeda in future, and an unstable political situation. Musharraf's resignation was welcomed by the Taliban in the hope that the new leadership will reverse the pro-US policies. While indicating that they were open for talks, they have laid a condition that the ongoing military operations be stopped in the tribal areas, specifically Bajaur and Swat, with immediate effect.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are both aware that instability could be the driving factor to force the government to reverse its pro US policies and abstain from military operations against them. They began hitting back with suicide attacks across the country to step up the pressure against the government as soon as Musharraf resigned.

The latest attacks include the two suicide blasts outside the ordnance factory (a highly sensitive military facility) in Wah that killed more than 70 people on August 21 for which the TTP has claimed responsibility. Another attack on a hospital in D.I.Khan that was a sectarian attack targeting Shias killed 19 people and shows that the TTP has also upped the ante on the sectarian front. A suicide attack on August 23 at a police checkpoint in Swat killed at least eight people. These attacks, that have occurred in the days following Musharraf's resignation, are seen as a clear message from the Taliban that they will respond in such fashion in case military operations are not halted. Military operations in Bajaur and Swat were started a few weeks back because negotiations with the militants failed to achieve the results the government sought and also because the US, unhappy with the 'soft approach' being adopted by the government, put added pressure on taking a hard line towards the militants.

Despite these attacks, the curtailment of military operations is not a viable option at this time. However, the government should make efforts to address the problems of the thousands of displaced people from the tribal areas on an immediate basis besides starting development work to meet the demands of the local people who have suffered from decades of political and economic neglect and deprivation.

A wide section of Pakistani society is now weary of the terror attacks against civilians and the military, and the Al-Qaeda has succeeded in forming a fearful mindset among the population that does not view the war on terror as Pakistan's war but as an extension of a US war.

The people are fed up with the ongoing political impasse among the ruling parties. For them, it is vital that the government control inflation and the prices of food and fuel. The perception is that vital economic issues are being ignored and the political decision makers after Musharraf are more concerned about attaining power and positions. The two major parties seem to have entered a confrontational stage which is likely to see much grappling for power, and brokering and breaking of alliances with each side trying to undermine the other's efforts. As is common practice, the two parties collaborated against an external threat embodied by President Musharraf. Now that Musharraf has exited the stage, these two stand poised to fight.

The concern in the Gulf about the unfolding situation in Pakistan relates primarily to the security and economic fronts, both of which are linked to political developments. The Gulf States also host millions of Pakistani expatriate workers who contribute significant remittances to the Pakistan economy.

President Musharraf made some major blunders such as the ouster of a sitting judicial high bench, the gagging attempts of the media and the lawyers, the imposition of emergency in November and consequently experienced an erosion of public support, but his rule was also witness to many positives that have changed the face of Pakistan's political dynamics. The evolution of media as a powerful tool that has furthered public awareness and empowered civilian voices and freedom of expression was the most significant change.

The war on terror in which Pakistan played a crucial role, sometimes to its own detriment as it faced large-scale suicide attacks and spread of extremism, cannot be blamed on Musharraf's regime. The imploding of terror inside Pakistan has come about because of the US policies in Afghanistan along with a reversal of the hard hitting policies towards militant organizations by the Pakistan government that had in the past adopted a softer attitude with them. These problems were compounded by the US air attacks inside Pakistani territory that resulted in killings of innocent civilians. The perception in Pakistan to date has been that the war they have been dragged into is not their war, and if left alone the Al-Qaeda and Taliban would let them live in peace; in short, they do not want to fight a war that is seen as being primarily in America's interest. No political party, despite the rhetoric that they are committed to fighting terrorism and extremism, has made efforts to hold public awareness campaigns about the existential threat Pakistan faces today. This may sound exaggerated but the truth of the matter is that the leadership needs to take stock, put behind past grievances and power sharing squabbles, restore institutions within the democratic setup, and rise to the challenge and implement the writ of the state. The revival of the troubled economy should be an immediate priority with urgent measures being taken to control food and energy prices, even if this means cutting down on governmental foreign trips and other state expenses that are not essential in the face of the economic crunch the country faces.