Pakistan's turmoil echoes in Afghanistan
KARACHI - The Pakistani government's peace agreement last week with militants in the Swat Valley, followed by ceasefires all across the tribal areas and the formation of a united Pakistani tribal front of mujahideen to reinforce the Taliban's battle in Afghanistan were the first seeds sown for the failure of the United States' plans for the region.
Wednesday's development in Pakistan now conclusively ends the political package drawn up in 2007 by Saudi Arabia, the US and Britain and implemented through February 2008 elections to install a consensus government of liberal and secular political parties to provide popular support for the "war on terror".
The possible ramifications for Afghanistan are enormous.
The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled that opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, chief of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), a former two-time prime minister, could not stand for parliament as a result of an old criminal conviction. The court also disqualified his brother, Shahbaz, who was chief minister of the provincial government in Punjab, Pakistan's most prosperous and populous province, ordering him to resign immediately over a plane hijacking incident in 1999.
The decision sets the scene for political turmoil and unrest and a major challenge to the one-year-old government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan People's party (PPP).
Within hours of the news of the Sharif brothers' disqualification, violent street protests forced the government to impose governor's rule in Punjab for two months.
At a press conference at their Raiwind farm house near Lahore, the brothers blamed Zardari for orchestrating the decision. They said the reason was their support for the restoration of former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary, who was sacked by the government of president General Pervez Musharraf on November 2, 2007.
Lawyers and others have since then agitated on behalf of Chaudhary and other members of the judiciary who were dismissed and large protests are planned for next month. These could get even bigger, judging by Wednesday's events in which the PML-N-dominated province was brought to a virtual standstill by protesters.
The ability of the federal government to function could well be compromised. A key coalition partner in the PPP-led government, the Awami National Party, issued a statement saying that the court decision was unacceptable and that it would stand with the PML-N.
The benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE)-100 index on Wednesday fell by 294.05 points or about 5% to close at 5,580.78 points. Shares earlier gained 1% before the court ruling prompted panic selling. The market is likely to remain under pressure in the short-term because of worry about political instability, according to the local traders.
The Afghanistan connection
The situation in Pakistan impacts heavily on Afghanistan. The Taliban-led insurgency relies to a large degree on its bases inside Pakistan and the latest ceasefires in the tribal areas will allow the Taliban uninterrupted preparations for its spring offensive. The Taliban, therefore, want the political uncertainty to continue as the central government will continue to leave them in peace.
Washington, on the other hand, will view the political turmoil in horror and will possibly back the military to take some form of initiative, at the least in dealing with the militants.
In this regard, the visit by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani to Washington on February 20 could turn out to be crucial as to date he has advocated neutrality in political matters. The US might have tried to convince him otherwise.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has deployed an additional 3,000 troops in the restive provinces of Logar and Wardak, and US President Barack Obama has ordered 17,000 more US troops to southern Afghanistan. Other countries, such as Italy and Britain, will contribute more troops and the total number could reach 90,000, only 30,000 fewer than the Soviet Union had in the country in the 1980s.
Pakistani strategic expert Dr Farrukh Saleem, however, pointed out to Asia Times Online that today's troops "are far superior to the 120,000 Soviet troops in terms of training, equipment and strategy".
The new troops will be split between Logar, Wardak and Ghazni provinces around the capital Kabul and Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, where they will attempt to stop the infiltration of Taliban fighters from Pakistan.
The Taliban believe they already have sufficient fighters to keep up the heat around Kabul and intend to send more forces to two areas:
Pakistan's Khyber Agency for continued attacks on NATO supply convoys;
Helmand province in Afghanistan.
Asia Times Online contacts say that Pakistani fighters will come mostly from the South Waziristan tribal areas and head for the Garmsir district of Helmand. This is extremely inhospitable territory and the permanent ground deployment of NATO troops is not possible.
From Helmand, forces will be sent to the northwestern Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Herat. The province of Farah, situated on the same belt, is already under the control of the Taliban and the Taliban often slip into Nimroz and Herat to carry out actions against NATO troops.
An added element this year will be a concentration on disrupting NATO's supply lines, whether they enter the country from Pakistan, Iran or Central Asia.
In these new struggles, the decisions that are made in Islamabad over the next few days or weeks will be crucial, that is, just which way the Pakistani military is going to jump.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org