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Pakistan amidst the storms

Graham Usher reports from Islamabad on the problems besetting Pakistan's new coalition government

June 28, 2008
18 min read

Islamabad, 27 June 2008 Less than three months after being formed, Pakistan’s coalition government is in trouble. The leader of one of its constituent parties, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), is awaiting a decision from the country’s Supreme Court about whether he can run in parliamentary by-elections that began on June 26. The court is packed with judges appointed by President Pervez Musharraf, the ex-general who overthrew Sharif, a two-time prime minister, in a 1999 coup.

But this is only one squall rocking the government. There are others. One emanates from the country’s powerful lawyers’ movement, whose self-titled ‘Long March’ concluded on June 13 in a cacophony of rage as thousands rallied outside Parliament in Islamabad. Another is growing discontent over US military actions, not only in Afghanistan, but also, increasingly, inside Pakistan. On June 11, US Special Forces killed 11 Pakistani soldiers at their base on the Afghan border, the most lethal instance of ‘friendly fire’ since the Pakistani military became an unwilling convert to the US war on radical Islam in October 2001.

The lawyers’ demands have been consistent since Pakistan’s parliamentary elections on February 18: reinstatement of the 63 judges Musharraf sacked in 2007 during a bout of martial rule, and impeachment of a president most Pakistanis believe lost his mandate with the drubbing ‘his’ party received in the suffrage. Yet if the Long Marchers’ anger was expressed against Musharraf, their true target — symbolized by the destination of Parliament — was the government, particularly its main component, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the slain ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her widower and political heir Asif Ali Zardari.

For eleven weeks the PPP has dithered over the fate of Musharraf and the judges, creating the spectacle of a government adrift and in crisis. In a sign of the times, the PML-N was the largest contingent on the march, protesting its own coalition partner. PPP lawyers and cadre had slunk away from the capital.

Contradiction is also the source of the US-Pakistani imbroglio. Cajoled and rented by Washington, the Pakistani army since 2003 has engaged in a low-intensity war against its own people in a futile attempt to dislodge Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda fugitives ensconced on the Pakistani-Afghan border. These military operations have swelled the ranks of the Taliban, transforming it from an insurgency in Afghanistan into an indigenous Pakistani movement that now rules not only much of the tribal borderlands but also large parts of the ‘settled’ Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

Since the elections, the government — led by the army — has tried to wrest back some of this lost territory via peacemaking and negotiation rather than war and incursion. Alarmed at the impact these policies could have on NATO’s counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, US forces have responded by increasing the number of cross-border strikes into Pakistan. For many Pakistanis the killing of the soldiers was thus an ‘accidental’ death foretold. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s warning on June 15 that his troops may also be forced to invade Pakistan in ‘self-defense’ — an alarm bell few in Pakistan believe could have been rung without some American tugging — is a harbinger of battles to come.

Interminable judicial crisis

The Long March, actually a ragged motorcade, took six days to reach Islamabad from the capital cities of Pakistan’s four provinces. The crawl was an apt metaphor for the judicial impasse that inspired it. Most Pakistanis believed the crisis had been resolved on March 24, when their new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, freed from house arrest the ousted judges, including Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. In fact, the crisis only deepened.

The recent career of this stocky jurist with hooded eyes had become a symbol of the change most Pakistanis want for their country. In March 2007 Musharraf tried to fire him, ostensibly for ‘misconduct,’ but actually because he had called to account the army’s illegal use of state power. The lawyers’ movement flowered in Chaudhry’s defense, forcing his reappointment and, eventually, Musharraf’s resignation as army chief of staff.

During martial rule in November, Musharraf sacked Chaudhry again, together with 62 other judges. Five thousand lawyers were interned, including leaders like the head of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan. Musharraf charged all of the attorneys with ‘conspiracy.’ But the real crime was clear: The Supreme Court had been about to rule invalid his presidential ‘election’ in October. The incarceration of the judges cast a pall over the February elections — darker, in fact, than the cloud formed by Bhutto’s murder in December 2007. Although the PPP emerged as the largest force in the new assembly — the only party with a base in all four provinces — it polled no more votes than it had in the 2002 elections.

The PML-N was the real wildcard. It swept aside all comers in Punjab, the richest and most populous province, and did so on the back of one uncompromising demand: full reinstatement of the judges. ‘Sharif made the judges’ issue his own and defeated the blood of Bhutto. That is the power of the chief justice,’ said Ahsan, a PPP leader in Punjab. He is also the major strategist behind the chief justice’s various campaigns for reinstatement, including the Long March.

Since 1999 — when Musharraf deposed Sharif’s second government — the PPP has been allied with the PML-N in opposition to military rule. But in government, in the 1990s, the two parties were adversaries. That they came together in a coalition in 2008 was thus seen as a new dawn, and one that most Pakistanis welcomed. Again, Sharif had only one condition for the alliance: reinstatement of judges. ‘The ouster of Musharraf can wait,’ said Ahsan Iqbal, a PML-N minister.

Reinstatement did not happen, despite negotiations, two missed deadlines and ‘crisis’ meetings between Sharif and Zardari in London and Dubai. On May 12, nine PML-N ministers resigned over the impasse. ‘We will not be part of any conspiracy to strengthen the dictatorship,’ said Sharif.

On the surface, the difference between the two coalition parties is not about whether the judges will be restored but how. The PML-N believes it can be done through an executive order. The PPP believes reinstatement requires an act of Parliament since there are legal issues — like Musharraf’s appointment of 17 new judges — that have to be accommodated.

But there is another reason for the PPP’s tardiness. Reinstatement could rend the delicate understandings stitched together between Musharraf and Bhutto in 2007. She had agreed to back him as a civilian president if he agreed to grant amnesty to her, Zardari and her party on a raft of corruption cases pending from their periods in government. Zardari fears that a reinstated independent judiciary would annul the amnesty. And Musharraf insists he has delivered on his side of the pact: He let Bhutto return from exile, withdrew the government’s cases against her family, resigned as army chief and allowed free elections on February 18 — so free that his own ‘king’s party,’ the PML-Q, was routed. He now expects the PPP to reciprocate. So does Washington.

But Zardari cannot reciprocate — not without tearing his coalition, and perhaps his party, apart. On May 4, Musharraf proffered a ‘historic compromise,’ mediated by the United States. He would give up certain executive powers in return for indemnity for his actions under martial law, especially the sacking of the judges. But he would keep the president’s right to appoint chiefs of the armed forces and preside over the extra-parliamentary National Security Council, two powers that essentially formalize the army’s role in governance.

The PPP wants him to give up all powers save those of a figurehead. Musharraf has refused. The PPP’s latest compromise is a convoluted ‘constitutional amendment’ whereby the president is indemnified, the judges are reinstated and power to appoint the heads of the armed forces is shared with the prime minister, but all other executive powers are surrendered. Musharraf said he would resist all attempts to reduce him to a ‘useless vegetable.’ The PML-N has said it will resist all ruses to indemnify him. So will the lawyers. ‘President Musharraf will not be given safe passage,’ Sharif thundered before the Long Marchers in Islamabad. ‘He will be impeached and held accountable for his deeds.’

The script seems written for confrontation between the three arms of the state. In the past such paralysis was the trigger for military intervention. Will Pakistan’s 600,000-strong army intervene again?

The message from army headquarters is that it will not accept Musharraf’s ‘humiliation,’ and that includes impeachment. Washington has intimated the same. But the army will not bring down an elected government at Musharraf’s bidding, says a source: ‘The army paid its dues to Musharraf in 2007: when he sacked the chief justice, imposed martial law and tarried over stepping down as army chief. Its message now is, ‘You’re on your own.” Under its new head, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army seems serious about disengaging from its historical role as political arbiter. But that does not mean it is removing its hand from politics entirely. On the contrary, it is the army that is taking the lead in the peace process with the Pakistan Taliban.

Peace and America

Preaching peace, the new government inherited war. In February, the army was reconquering cities from the Taliban in Swat in the NWFP and South Waziristan, a tribal agency on the Afghan border. In reprisal, the Taliban and its allies were striking throughout Pakistan. In 2007’s first three months there were 17 suicide attacks leaving 274 civilians, police and soldiers dead, including blasts in major cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi. Pakistan felt like Iraq.

Two actions brought the violence to heel. One was a choking siege in South Waziristan on the tribes belonging to Baitullah Mehsud — leader of the Pakistan Taliban and the man Musharraf (though not the PPP) says killed Bhutto. In collective punishment, the army also evicted 150,000 tribesmen and their families from their homes. The siege and expulsion ‘bankrupted Mehsud and forced him to negotiate,’ says Khalid Aziz, a former first secretary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and now an analyst.

The other move was the government’s commitment to political rather than just military solutions to the revolt, including the repeal of British-era colonial laws in FATA that permitted abuses like mass expulsion and the razing of villages. The Taliban wanted their replacement with Islamic law, and for the FATA to become a separate province. ‘We did not want to fight the government,’ said Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammed in March. But, he warned, ‘The country would suffer as long as Pakistan remained an ally of the US.’ Peace talks began in South Waziristan and Swat.

Pakistan’s insurgents are not one group, but at least four, loosely allied. There is the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. There are the ‘Kashmiri mujahideen,’ native jihadist groups once nurtured by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies to fight a proxy war with India in the disputed Kashmir province but which have now cut loose from their handlers. And there is al-Qaeda and its affiliates: between 150 and 500 Arab, Uzbek and other foreign fighters who have found refuge in the FATA and use the remote tribal enclave for planning, training, rearmament and recruitment.

There are differences between the factions. The Pakistan and Afghan Taliban are still overwhelmingly ethnic Pashtun movements with a focus on Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and the jihadists have a more global reach, including targets within Pakistan, such as the bombing on June 2 of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. But all are united in the war against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. And all are committed to extending the Taliban’s territorial reach beyond the FATA to the NWFP as a whole, including Peshawar, the provincial capital. Such Talibanization ‘gives the Taliban more security, territory, recruits and bargaining power,’ says a source. ‘It allows them to talk peace in Swat while waging war in Waziristan.’

The government’s response to Talibanization has been to temporize. In 2007, before her return, Bhutto spoke of devolving democratic power to the tribes while integrating the FATA into Pakistan proper, in effect doing away with its special ‘tribal’ status. The focus of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party, which heads the NWFP Provincial Government, is economic: It has drawn up plans for a crash program of schools, colleges, rehabilitation centers and jobs to wean young tribesmen from an emerging Taliban polity that is well ‘on the way to primitive state formation with its own tax system, paid bureaucracy and dispute resolution,’ says Aziz. For him — and many in the NWFP government — the Taliban represents less an Islamist movement than a ‘class revolt expressed in a religious idiom. The closest analogy is the Maoists in Nepal,’ he says. It can only be addressed by the ‘transformation and integration’ of a derelict tribal system.

Such a project ‘will take years,’ says Aziz. It is also understood that no peace will hold in the NWFP without a resolution of the conflict with the Taliban in the FATA, which is under the remit of the federal government. And the PPP and Awami Nationalist Party have passed that buck to the army: an abdication frankly admitted by the government’s decision on June 25 to entrust the use of force in FATA entirely to Kayani. The army’s strategy for now is to secure localized peace deals that will keep the territorial advantage it obtained in February while playing divide-and-rule with the Taliban’s different tribal leaderships. It is ‘the policy of the breathing space,’ says Afghanistan expert Ahmad Rashid.

In South Waziristan, this means extracting a pledge from the Taliban to end attacks on the army and government-sponsored development projects. In return, the army will release prisoners and ‘reposition’ its units outside the cities. In Swat in the NWFP, the tradeoff is that the Taliban end attacks on government institutions, including girls’ schools, in return for implementation of Islamic law, seen principally as a means to coopt hundreds of jobless seminary students who may otherwise join the militants. ‘It’s an agreement,’ says Aziz, ‘but not in the Western sense. In the FATA an agreement is an arrangement to coexist. It means shutting your eyes to many things.’

The Taliban have closed their eyes to the army camps that now nestle permanently in the mountains above them. And the army is looking away from a steady flow of guerrillas across the border, or at least is not acting overtly to intercept them. Peace in Pakistan, in other words, may translate into intensified warfare in Afghanistan.

Or so the Americans allege. In January, just prior to the elections, US commanders seconded to NATO met with Musharraf in Islamabad. They sought permission to increase overflights of the FATA by pilotless drone aircraft to kill al-Qaeda fugitives. The aim was to ‘shake down’ the al-Qaeda command to get a better steer on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, preferably before the end of Bush’s tenure in January 2009. Musharraf agreed, on the condition that the quarries were al-Qaeda, not Taliban. He feared blowback.

Since then, there have been several drone sorties into Pakistani airspace, leaving more than 50 people dead. According to US and British intelligence, the slain have included ‘high-value’ senior al-Qaeda commanders, like the Libyan Layth al-Libi and Algerian Sulayman al-Jaza’iri, the latter allegedly responsible for planning attacks in Europe. According to locals, the majority of those killed were tribesmen, women and children. But the drones are also being flown to punish the Pakistani government for a policy Washington opposes.

The last deadly attack was on May 15 in Damadola, a village in the Bajaur tribal agency. At least 15 were killed, including perhaps al-Jaza’iri and an 11-year old child. They were reportedly in a house owned by Mullah Obaidallah Akhund, the former Afghan Taliban defense minister captured in 2007 by the Pakistani army at the behest of Washington. There are rumors that Akhund has or will be freed as part of the South Waziristan prisoner exchange. Unusually, the army condemned the strike as ‘completely counterproductive.’ So did Gilani and the NWFP governor.

The killing of the 11 Pakistani soldiers on June 11 comes from this well of distrust. The day before Afghan soldiers, backed by US Special Forces, had tried to set up a post near the Afghan border but inside Pakistani territory. The army ordered them out. As the Afghan and American soldiers retreated, the Taliban ambushed them. Artillery and air-to-surface missiles were fired at or near the army base in Pakistan. US commanders knew the risk of ‘collateral damage’ was high: They fired in any case. That was why the Pakistan army — in a ferocious communiqué — called the US missile strike an ‘act of aggression.’ In the eyes of most of Pakistan, it was.

Subsequent incursions by US helicopters and drones into Pakistani airspace — as well as very public statements by US NATO Commanders that a recent hike in Taliban activity in eastern Afghanistan is ‘directly attributable to the lack of pressure on the [Pakistani] side of the border’ — has convinced many in Pakistan that Washington is about to shift strategy: away from relying on the Pakistani army to ‘do more’ against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in FATA and toward a preemptive policy whereby the US and/or NATO go into Pakistan alone.

Centrism cannot hold

Why has the dawn broken by the February elections dimmed so rapidly? The short answer is that the political aspiration voiced by those elections has been gagged by extra-parliamentary agreements that preceded them.

When Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October 2007, she did so as part of a deal underwritten by Washington and the army. If elected prime minister, she promised, her party would ensure continuity, not change, in policy, whether in terms of the army’s mercenary role in the ‘war on terror’ or Musharraf’s continuation as a ‘civilian’ president for another five years. This vow was why Washington prevailed on Musharraf to allow her back, especially as the lawyers’ protest had stripped away the last vestiges of his ‘civilian’ legitimacy.

But, on February 18, the Pakistani electorate voted for change — and against Musharraf, Islamabad’s participation in what most Pakistanis see as an American war and the army’s involvement in governance. Prior to her murder, Bhutto had confected the idea of a ‘moderate middle’ to obscure the contradiction at the heart of her return. With her party in government, the contradiction stands naked. Whether on Afghan borderlands or in the federal capital, the centrism of the PPP’s politics — appealing to the masses while trying to toe the US line — cannot hold. Very simply, there is no center in Pakistani politics, no ‘moderate middle’: There is policy decreed by Washington and an electorate, including now large parts of the army, that rejects it.

Storms lie in wait for Pakistan — aside from the fallout of a judicial crisis that may yet bring the coalition government to an early shipwreck. By the end of June, the government will almost certainly pass a budget that aims to narrow yawning deficits by withdrawing subsidies from basic commodities, including wheat, gas and electricity. This move will deeply hurt the poor: Nearly 50 percent of Pakistanis — 77 million people — are already ‘food insecure,’ according to UN surveys. With Pakistan suffering from the same pressures on food prices that have depressed living standards worldwide, such austerity measures could end in food riots.

And the summer thaw in the Hindu Kush, with the attendant rise in Taliban attacks, could prove the final tripwire for a full-fledged US incursion into the FATA. Aziz is mordant about the consequence of that collision. ‘If there is a peace agreement [with the Taliban] followed by a major NATO attack inside Pakistan, it would stretch the US-Pakistani alliance to the breaking point. It would destroy everything.’

Is there shelter from the gathering storms? The government could return to its election pledges. It could reinstate the judges and, concurrent with dialogue with the Taliban, commit to a mass investment for ’empowerment, education, employment’ for the poor in all of the smaller provinces, but especially the FATA and the NWFP. But for all this to transpire, Musharraf would need to stand down, the army would need to stand back and Washington would need to exhibit a ‘strategic patience’ unseen since September 11, 2001. None of these eventualities is likely.

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