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Why it's crunch time for Pakistan

August 08, 2008 20:52 IST
One thing you cannot accuse the Pakistani media of is a lack of sense of humour. As a Pakistani friend puts it, "without humour, at times gallows humour, we couldn't have survived numerous dictators, from Ayub and Yahya Khan, through Zia-ul Haq, to Pervez Musharraf."

A recent example of such humour is an imaginary 2020 issue of Dawn, the country's largest-selling English newspaper, which leads with the headline: 'President Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani has removed his uniform.' Meanwhile, Balochistan has become an independent country; the Sharif brothers and Asif Ali Zardari have been dead for nine years; and Osama bin Laden is still at large. The Pakistani rupee is down to 178 to the US dollar, while oil sells at $440 a barrel. But Pakistan has lost the cricket series to Hong Kong, of all countries!

The imaginary front page captures Pakistan's dark, foreboding mood. Four-and-a-half months after the Yousuf Raza Gilani coalition government was sworn in, none of the promises it made, barring one -- getting the United Nations to consider an international investigation into Benazir Bhutto's assassination -- has been fulfilled. Even this amounts to a confession by the government of its lack of faith in its own investigative agencies and the judiciary. The Supreme Court and high court judges dismissed in November still remain un-reinstated.

However, after days of dramatic tension and flip-flops, the Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have shifted their focus to impeaching President Pervez Musharraf rather than reinstating the judges. This might start a decisive battle for the assertion of will of the people's elected representatives against unaccountable centres of power -- or precipitate a disastrous chain of events. At stake is the fate of the elected government, and of democracy.

The tortuous manner in which the impeachment decision was reached -- after vacillation, off-now, on-now moments, and the theatrical restoration of eight high court judges amidst charges of perfidy -- raises questions about the coalition's ability to accomplish what's an extremely difficult task even in favourable circumstances in mature democracies. It won't be easy to muster the necessary two-thirds majority.

It's not excluded that General Musharraf will strike to pre-empt or neutralise the impeachment move. What provoked the move was the fear that he might dissolve the government.

A confrontation will be averted if Musharraf quits knowing that he won't get the United States or Pakistan army backing for a confrontationist course. He's no longer in a critical policy-making position, nor indispensable to the US-led Global War on Terror. Washington also cannot relish a new Pakistan crisis during an election year.

As Pakistan's divided, rudderless civilian leadership flounders, normal governance is in the deep freezer. The economy is in poor shape and inflation runs at 20 percent. Pessimism and gloom pervade Pakistan. According to an International Republican Institute opinion poll, as many as 86 percent of Pakistanis believe their country is headed in the wrong direction.

The Pakistani military is under enormous pressure from the US to escalate its operations against the Taliban, or to allow the US-led International Security Assistance Force to undertake anti-militant raids across the border. The army's authority stands greatly eroded. Its popular acceptance, which has taken a beating over the past year, is plumbing new lows.

Jihadi militancy is growing. On the first anniversary of the Lal Masjid's storming, thousands of women pledged to raise their children for martyrdom in 'holy war.' Militants on the rampage are burning down girls' schools in the tribal areas, where the writ of the State doesn't run.

There is a growing danger now that the gains from the recent trends towards democratisation will be badly eroded, even lost. These trends run against hierarchy and authoritarianism, negatively view the three As (Army, Allah and America), and favour moderation, openness and accountability.

Pakistan is regressing into a state of being a hostage to three fundamental tensions that have long determined its existence, but from which it has uncertainly struggled to free itself: Opposition between the imperatives of a modern, moderate State and a religion-based self-identity; imbalance between military and civilian authority; and skewed distribution of power between different regions.

Two recent developments have further complicated the situation. The first was a government notification of July 26 placing the Inter-Services Intelligence agency under the control of the interior ministry, and its withdrawal within seven hours following protests from the president's office and army headquarters -- called 'the fiasco of the year'. The second is growing evidence that the ISI was involved in the July 7 suicide attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, in which four Indians and 56 others were killed. This has adversely affected the already tense and crisis-ridden peace process with India. But mercifully, the process has not been suspended.

The ISI notification was timed to coincide with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's visit to the United States and assure President George W Bush that the ISI under civilian control would cooperate earnestly with the US's war on terror. Its withdrawal had the opposite effect, leading Bush to ask Gilani just who controls the ISI.

More important, it highlighted the weakness of the civilian government vis-a-vis the military, which is loath to give up control over the agency which functions as 'a State within a State' and has long implemented Pakistan's policy towards both India and Afghanistan. This is a significant setback to Pakistan's democratisation.

The second development is even more important. On July 12, the Central Intelligence Agency despatched its deputy director Stephen R Kappes to Pakistan with evidence of the ISI's links with pro-Al Qaeda militants. Along with the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff Admiral Mike Mullen, he delivered 'a pointed message' to Pakistani officials.

This is the first time the CIA has confronted Islamabad with intelligence suggesting that the ISI was involved in a specific attack (on the Kabul embassy), and more generally, that it has been passing to militants crucial inputs about ISAF's planned anti-Taliban operations.

According to The New York Times, 'the CIA assessment specifically points to links between members (of the ISI) and militant network led by Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, which American officials believe maintains close ties senior figures Al Qaeda tribal areas?. Haqqani is said to be face of the resurgent Taliban in Pakistan?s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The CIA's assessment confirms what Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has publicly alleged about the attack on India's embassy in Kabul, and his identification of the ISI as the source of many terrorist attacks calculated to destabilise his country. The Pakistani authorities have denied this, but not cited convincing counter-evidence.

In Colombo, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took up the issue with Gilani, who promised to order an investigation into the allegation, which has major implications for the India-Pakistan peace process. However, President Musharraf has since accused India of fomenting trouble in Baluchistan. The Pakistani foreign ministry has also charged India and Afghanistan with instigating violence in its tribal areas, and held Afghanistan responsible for its failure to protect its consulate in Herat in western Afghanistan from an attack on July 31.

Whatever the specific validity of these charges and counter-charges, there's little doubt that Afghanistan, a badly ravaged and unstable country, has emerged as a major battleground between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is not only keen to preserve its influence in that country which it has long regarded as its strategic backyard, or a region that gives it 'strategic depth.' It also seeks to deny India any influence in Afghanistan.

India, on the other hand, is not only keen to maintain and deepen its historic relationship with Afghanistan, which is a legitimate agenda. It also seems to be looking for a vantage point from which to launch low-intensity operations across the border into Pakistan. That purpose is less than legitimate, and risks sucking India into an ugly open-ended confrontation, which is likely to claim many innocent lives, especially of Afghans, to help whom is India's professed policy.

Admittedly, India has run one of the largest and most successful aid programmes in Afghanistan. It has just expanded it from $750 million (about Rs 3,000 crore) to $1.2 billion (about Rs 4,800 crore). Unlike Western aid projects, India routes its assistance without outsourcing it via numerous middlemen. Indian aid is far better focused than Western assistance and addresses felt needs in healthcare, education, urban transportation, and in the training of civil servants, diplomats, police and the judiciary. This has earned India a great deal of goodwill in Afghanistan.

It would be in India's interest if it were to offer confidence building measures to Islamabad, including cooperative aid projects in Afghanistan. The alternative to engaging Pakistan and accelerating the peace process is competitive Cold War-style rivalry, which will harm the interests of both India and Pakistan -- and above all, the Afghan people.

Praful Bidwai