Militants bide for time and turmoil

Posted in Broader Middle East , Pakistan | 22-Feb-08 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

Asif Ali Zardari (L), widower of the late former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and leader of the Pakistan People's Party, holds a joint news conference with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad February 21, 2008.
In Pakistan and abroad argument is heating up over whether the country's general election result was truly representative of the masses. The debate is especially relevant given the low voter turnout, ever-present threats of violence, and the mediation of Western allies who have been working to establish a "coalition of the willing" between political rivals for at least the past year. Some experts believe the salient absence of civil society leaders and unresolved election issues have rendered the electoral process "incomplete".

Also highly debated is the future role of President Pervez Musharraf. The so-called "coalition of the willing" was originally aimed at building a consensus government with the retired general Musharraf as president and head of the National Security Council - the body that oversees all the armed forces. In light of recent events, such an arrangement would place Pakistan on track for a showdown between Islamic militants and the new alliance of liberal and secular forces. It all makes for a combustible mix in Pakistan - a country that's been described as the "central front" of the US-led global "war on terror".

Waiting on the sidelines, tucked away in snowy mountain redoubts, are violent militant groups known to be linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the past, the militants have been quiet during periods of stability - only to strike when Pakistan found itself gripped by turmoil. Once again, experts say, they seem to be waiting for the Western-backed "coalition of the willing" to fall apart, possibly over the role of Musharraf, the upcoming military excursions in tribal areas or the restoration of the judiciary.

Still, this week has witnessed laborious overtures by Western diplomats. Since Tuesday envoys have met several times with Pakistan People's Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Zardari. On Wednesday a top US official met with Shebaz Sharif, brother of former premier Nawaz Sharif and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). Finally, on Thursday the Saudi ambassador sat down with Nawaz Sharif.

In a joint press conference later that day, Sharif and Zardari announced the formation of a consensus government which will be led by the PPP. Both leaders expressed solidarity with each other, but managed to leave many campaign issues in ambiguity. Left unanswered were the issue of restoring the judiciary, which was sacked by Musharraf, as well as the question of whether to take the oath for parliament and the role the current administration will play in the new government.

Sharif stated that his party would be supportive of the PPP and will help it govern the country for five years. The agreement between longtime rivals Sharif and Zardari reflected the hard work of international mediators, who "patched up" all the differences for a joint cause. On the sidelines, the Pakistani establishment is desperately working to cobble parliament together into a purposeful and effective body.

Victory for democracy in Pakistan?
"In the aftermath of the elections, hectic activities - read arm twisting and coercion - are at their height, [trying] to wrest away the victory from the people, said Aziz Narejo, the president of the Sindhi Association of North America (SANA) in an e-mail message to Asia Times Online.

Narejo continued:
Dictator Musharraf and his allies in the PML-Q [Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam] and the MQM [Muttehida Qaumi Movement] have met in Islamabad. They are set to influence the largest single party in the National Assembly to accept the dictator as president and enter into a coalition with the two parties allied with the dictator in the center and the province of Sindh. The reports say that to get the desired results, the military dictator has threatened to revoke the controversial NRO [National Reconciliation Ordinance] and arrest Asif Zardari. The regime has already asked the Swiss courts to proceed against Asif Zardari. They may also try to reactivate cases in other countries.
According to Narejo, the tactics are "bearing fruit", and he cites as evidence a statement from Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, in which he states that the PPP would like to have the six-party religious alliance MQM as their partner in Sindh.

"This [partnership] will be a continuation of the same and would dash the hopes of the people hoping for change. The people have voted for and want change, not the continuation of the same. They have comprehensively rejected [Musharraf] and the policies pursued by him and his allies," wrote Narejo, whose SANA association is historically close to the PPP. "There is a general perception that 'strong arm' and coercive tactics have made Asif Zardari extremely vulnerable. He may be forced to accept the military dictator's position. That will be a catastrophe for the country and the people. It will also undo any good that the elections might have brought."

The Accountability Courts on Wednesday adjourned hearings on Zardari's applications to withdraw corruption charges made against him. A spokesman said the court was waiting for a final verdict of the Supreme Court on the 2007 NRO.

The NRO was issued by Musharraf after the late PPP leader Bhutto struck a deal with Musharraf’s government. Under the ordinance, Bhutto and her widower Zardari were given immunity against the corruption charges registered against them.

"If this [the victory of two opposition parties] is not a qualitative change in the ... country, on what basis would anybody analyze the future of democracy in Pakistan? Did the [PML-N] or the PPP play any significant role and on what basis would anybody say that people have got them a victory?" asked political commentator and prominent Pakistani philosopher Shahnawaz Farooqui.

Farooqui also noted that there was a complete absence of civil society participation in the political parties as well as a dearth of discussion on the ongoing military operations in tribal areas and on the government's raid on Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque) that left at least 50 people dead.

"If [the election results] are not a qualitative change then ... what was all that happened in the name of elections and the election results?" said Farooqui. "I would not call the elections a sham, but an incomplete political process in which the majority of the country did not take part. Whatever the government claimed, all independent observers estimated the turnout at no more than 20%. I would not go into a debate about how the votes claimed in the total turnout were filled in at the ballot box as everybody knows how these things happen in Pakistan, but if you see the TV footage you will see empty polling stations. Would you expect any qualitative change from a process in which 80% of the population did not take part?"

The militants who rattled the country with suicide attacks until one day before the elections are now suddenly quiet. Some observers have called the silence "shock" over the election results in which some religious parties were voted out of the scene. However, former Pakistani interior minister Aftab Sherpao, a leading expert on the militants as well as a Pashtun and a survivor of two suicide attacks, asserted that the battle with militants won't end with the elections. It is, Sherpao believes, a very long and continuous fight.

General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiani, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, toured South Waziristan on Thursday. According to sources, a joint operation conducted with US-led forces will soon be launched in the mountains of the Waziristans. Forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) struck militant camps in North Waziristan on Wednesday but the reports were played down by the press amid the post-election atmosphere.

Meanwhile, militants in the Swat Valley, led by Mullah Fazlullah and supported by various tribal groups, are once again gathering in nearby regions to pitch a guerrilla battle against Pakistani forces. By the end of March, with the snow melting away from the mountains and the Western-supported "coalition of the willing" operating in parliament, the militants may begin their showdown in the mountains.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at