Pakistan's new era

Posted in Other | 18-May-08

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the…
The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London is a "Partner of Worldsecuritynetwork" and periodically contributes its analyses to the WSN Newsletter.
Elected government faces big challenges

Parliamentary elections held on 18 February 2008 delivered a setback both to President Pervez Musharraf and to Pakistan’s religious parties. The most successful parties were those of the two ex-prime ministers of the 1990s, the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated on 27 December 2007, and Nawaz Sharif. Putting aside long-standing mutual antipathy, the two parties surprisingly agreed to form a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, a loyal politician from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and a former speaker of the National Assembly.

The elections were widely seen as a success. Turnout, at 43%, was high by Pakistani standards and, while there was undoubtedly some manipulation and malpractice, the results have been generally accepted. That parliamentary elections were held at all was an important step forward following a turbulent period during which Musharraf declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution, and was forced to cede his role as army chief; meanwhile, Bhutto and Sharif returned from exile, and Bhutto, having escaped the carnage of a bomb attack on the day of her return, was killed while campaigning.

The PPP secured 121 seats (including reserved seats) out of 342 in the National Assembly, while the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML(N)), led by Sharif, won 91 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) (PML(Q)), which had been formed largely from defectors from the two main parties and was known as ‘The King’s Party’ because of its support for Musharraf, gained only 54 seats, with 21 former ministers losing their seats. Meanwhile, religious parties were routed: in the 2002 elections, grouped as the MMA coalition, they had gained 11% of the vote and had formed the government in North West Frontier Province (NWFP); in 2008, they won only 2.2% of the vote and six National Assembly seats. The religious parties’ loss was to the advantage of the more traditional and secular Awami National Party (ANP), which won 13 seats. Discussions between the parties after the elections were more fruitful than even the most optimistic predictions, although the outcome may prove fragile. The grand coalition includes the PPP, PML(N) and ANP. The Muttahida Quami Movement, which won 25 seats and dominates the city of Karachi, is in coalition with the PPP in Sindh Province. The PML(Q), further weakened by post-election defections, now leads the opposition. On 29 March, Gillani was given an unprecedented unanimous vote of confidence by the National Assembly.

Looming problems

Despite such a promising start, the new government faces some very significant challenges. First, inherent tensions within the governing coalition are unlikely to remain far from the surface. The two main parties, PPP and PML(N), have long been bitter enemies. It may prove hard for Sharif, who has twice been prime minister, to submit to the leadership of the lower-profile Gillani, particularly in view of the behind-the-scenes influence of the PPP party leader, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s husband, who may eventually seek to become prime minister himself.

Secondly, the government’s relationship with Musharraf remains in question. His position is uncertain, and his role greatly reduced after he stepped down as army chief in November 2007 and following the controversial confirmation of his victory in the October presidential election. Partly because of a perception that he has been too close to the United States, he has lost most of the popular support that he received when he ousted Sharif, then prime minister, in the 1999 military coup. The new army chief, General Afshaq Kayani, has taken steps to reduce the army’s role in civilian affairs, which had grown enormously under Musharraf. Kayani may be expected to place a higher priority on the interests of the army and the country as a whole rather than on preserving Musharraf’s position should it be under threat – although it seems unlikely that he would wish actually to disturb it. Meanwhile, there is a question mark over control of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency which, although constitutionally under the control of the prime minister, has rarely if ever submitted to civilian authority. Kayani headed the ISI for three years until October 2007.

A number of pressing issues arising out of the dramatic events of 2007 are directly associated with Musharraf. The government has pledged to reverse the controls on the press that he introduced in November. And it is considering radical reductions of the president’s powers which were introduced under the military rule of Zia ul Haq. It also plans to bring the National Accountability Bureau, which had hounded the Bhutto and Sharif families for alleged corruption, under judicial control. Meanwhile, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whose suspension by Musharraf in March 2007 triggered unrest, and 60 Supreme Court Judges who were suspended in November 2007, are due to be reinstated on 12 May.

Thirdly, weaknesses in the economy are adding to the tensions within the country. The seemingly healthy 7% average growth of GDP over the last few years disguises a growing disparity between rich and poor, which can only be alleviated by introducing and enforcing tax regimes, but this seems a distant prospect. The finance minister, Ishaq Dar, who had filled the same position in Sharif’s cabinet in 1997–99, will also have to tackle the consequences of recent increases in the cost of wheat and oil products, and chronic issues surrounding water and energy shortages and distribution.

Growing militant violence

The greatest and most immediate challenge facing Pakistan is how to reduce the rising level of militancy and violence, including the relatively new phenomenon of suicide bombing which has reportedly risen from zero instances in 2005, to six in 2006, 62 in 2007 and 17 in the first few months of 2008. In July 2007, such militancy came to the heart of Islamabad after radical students at the Red Mosque violently demanded the introduction of sharia law and more than 100 people were killed when troops finally stormed the building.These threats have grown in complexity. Over the past few years the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the mountainous frontier region with a population of some 3.5 million and where the Pakistani authorities have limited control, have played host to an increasing number of extremist groups who share a broadly Islamist, anti-Western agenda and are prepared to collaborate tactically to varying degrees. These include: al-Qaeda; Uzbek, Chechen and other Central Asian extremists; Kashmiri militants; the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is believed by Western intelligence agencies to be based in Quetta, capital of the province of Baluchistan; and an indigenous Pakistani movement, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, led by Baitullah Mehsud, who is alleged by the ISI and the US Central Intelligence Agency to be responsible for Bhutto’s assassination and for most suicide bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Baitullah previously supported the aims of the Afghan Taliban, but Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, has apparently broken ties with him.

The Pakistani government is attempting to negotiate a ceasefire with the Tehrik-i-Taliban, which would involve the release of prisoners, compensation for tribespeople affected by violence involving government forces, and guarantees of free movement in Pakistan for Tehrik-i-Taliban members. But negotiations are stalled on the question of the withdrawal from the FATA of the Pakistani army, whose presence since 2004 has generated great ill-feeling among the Pashtun tribes and has undermined the already-weak power structures in the region. Western governments have expressed reservations about negotiating with the Tehrik-i-Taliban, fearing that this will reinforce the status of the FATA as a safe haven for groups planning attacks either on NATO forces in Afghanistan or against Western states. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently complained about the flow of militants across the Durand Line which, although not recognised as such by Afghanistan, serves as a border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The growing anarchy and criminality in the FATA, coupled with foreign concerns and the arrival of an elected Pakistani government, have stimulated a debate on the territories’ status. The traditional influence of the maliks, or tribal leaders, has in many cases been supplanted by clerics, criminals, warlords and other centres of influence, such as the Taliban and groups supported by the Pakistani army. Nevertheless, custom and the traditional Pashtun tribal code, which encompasses honour, refuge and revenge, remain immensely powerful. As a result it will prove exceptionally difficult to secure agreement on reforms intended to bring the FATA closer into the rest of Pakistan’s political system, and there are profound differences of view within the government and its advisers about the objectives, pace and feasibility of any change. The most fundamental issue concerns the special autonomous status of the tribal areas, enshrined in the 1973 constitution but reflecting centuries of tradition. Removal of this status could lead to a merger with NWFP. The new government has pledged to abolish or amend the antiquated Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1901, which deny access to courts and central justice. But if it were given the choice, the population of FATA would surely prefer to introduce sharia law rather than submit to Pakistan’s central justice system, which has a poor reputation and reflects none of the customs of the region. The extension of the Political Parties Act to the tribal areas, which would allow the national parties to campaign under their own names, might be the least difficult of the reforms currently envisaged. In spite of the difficulties of making changes, it seems that only far-reaching reforms, economic and social development, and the creation of job opportunities could bring about longer-term stability in this turbulent region. Pulling these threads together will require a comprehensive strategy such as Pakistan’s tribal belt has never experienced up to now, and which may have to extend more widely across the broader Pashtun community in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

External relations

While relations with Afghanistan should now improve as they become less subject to personal animosity between Musharraf and Karzai, Washington’s role and attitude is likely to remain of crucial importance. US military leaders continually stress the threat to US interests posed by militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt and have been publicly critical of the Pakistani army and other security forces, notwithstanding the provision of over $10 billion of overt US military assistance since 2001. The presence in Islamabad of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on the very day that the new Pakistani government was being formed was a clear sign of American concern that, with Musharraf weakened, Pakistan might become even less effective in dealing with such threats. Negroponte’s visit proved deeply unpopular, and appeared counterproductive as it seemed to symbolise American insensitivity and heavy-handedness. The challenge for both governments will, therefore, be to dissociate the perception of bowing to US pressure from the need for Pakistan to recognise and deal with the threats which violent militancy poses to the country as a whole. To this end, it may be necessary for Washington to place less public emphasis on short- to medium-term military measures and to do more to assist Pakistan in resolving its chronic longer-term developmental needs such as education, health and job creation.

Since security issues in the Afghan–Pakistan border region are of direct relevance to the US and NATO military efforts there, as well as to the threat of international terrorism, foreign governments will inevitably take a close interest in developments in Pakistan. However, meddling or over-prescriptive advice from outsiders could have unintended and unwelcome consequences.

This article is taken from the latest issue of Strategic Comments and appears by permission of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which retains the copyright. Strategic Comments, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides fact-based analysis on issues of strategic significance. It responds to breaking developments in international affairs and anticipates policy questions that are likely to loom large in the calculations of governments, analysts and businesses. Ten issues, each containing five 1,700-word illustrated articles, are published each year. If you would like to subscribe to Strategic Comments, please email James Hackett at or click here

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