Pakistan-Multiple Crises (re-issue)

Friday, January 7, 2011

NEW DELHI - Two to three years has been the average life span of elected governments in Pakistan ever since Z A Bhutto was PM from 1973 to 1977. His daughter Benazir alternated with her rival Nawaz Sharif from 1988 till 1999 when the Mian Sahib was overthrown by yet another saviour in Khaki, General Pervez Musharraf. And both former Prime Ministers were forced into exile.

Thus, going by past precedents the present combine of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani would now seem to have run out of its allotted time. Several crises confront the PPP led government and there are no easy solutions, quite a few outside the range of the PPP leadership’s capabilities to solve them.

The Commissar and the General

Apart from the ongoing turmoil in FATA and the tussle between the US and the Pak Army over North Waziristan is well known. An exasperated US administration finds itself unable to push the Pakistan Army led by Gen Kayani into launching operations in North Waziristan as it prepares for its draw down of forces later in the year. Each time the Americans press this issue or launch their drone attacks they slip in their popularity rating among the Pakistanis and each time Gen Kayani stonewalls he shines as a patriot.

The General has been driving a hard bargain with the Americans successfully as he silently strengthens his hold both on the system and the armed forces. Quite obviously, General Kayani has an agenda that goes beyond just refurbishing the image of the Army with generous assistance from the US. A professional Army does not need three year extensions in service to its Chief beyond the stipulated term unless the agenda is wider and political or ominously, even military and strategic.

Setting aside the economic crisis that engulfs Pakistan, there are two other crises that are brewing a political crisis in Islamabad and an ethnic-religious crisis in Karachi of grave dimensions that no one really wants to talk about.

A Political Crisis Unfolds

Zardari and Gilani are resigned to having to deal with an over bearing Army since this is the way of political life in Pakistan. But they have other disadvantages compared to their main political rival, Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML (N) or even their ally the MQM led by Altaf Hussain both of who command personal loyalties and have strong cadre based parties.

Nawaz controls the Punjab, while Altaf controls Karachi. Gilani and Zardari are comparative lightweights in the PPP and do not command that kind of respect that these two do within their parties and people. Nawaz is a Punjabi, has close links with the Saudis and the Jamaat Islami, which has a following in the Pak Army. He himself has strong right wing religious leanings, which endears him to a section of the Army and the religious parties. Yes his attempts to manipulate the Army in the past despite being originally a prot�g� of the Army, and his religious leanings would make him unacceptable to the Army and the US.

In a free and fair election, Nawaz could possibly sweep Punjab and he who wins Punjab rules Pakistan. This is possibly Kayani’s threat to the Americans at this juncture a few months before they plan their pull out. In the present crisis, perhaps Nawaz himself would not want to take over the reins of office so it suits him to see the government further weakened. He would rather wait it out unless an election is thrust upon him.

The MQM’s Complaints

The MQM crisis is somewhat different. While the world’s attention has been focused on the war in FATA against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the NWFP (Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa) ethnic and religious violence has been increasing alarmingly in Karachi. The MQM has for years complained and feared that the ingress of Pushtuns from the frontier many of whom are Talibanised would tilt the balance away from them while the activities of religious parties like the Deobandi parties like Lashkar e Jhangvi would further erode its hold in urban Sindh especially Karachi and Hyderabad. There is another complication in that politically the Mohajirs support the MQM, the Sindhis support the PPP and the Pushtun support the Awami National Party. The latter two invariably combine against the MQM.

Politically motivated targeted killings in Karachi have been increasing alarmingly. The Daily Times of Lahore reported that last year about 780 people were killed in ethnic, religious and political violence in Karachi which is similar to the suicide killings in the NWFP (797) and more than in the rest of the country (427). While the MQM may have its own political objectives in complaining to Gilani about the worsening law and order situation in Karachi the fact is that the metropolis has become a hot bed of rivalries between various competing and conflicting interests with strong overtones of a Talibanised culture and MQM fears it may have to cede ground to Wahhabi-Salafi beliefs brought in by more and more Pushtun leaving their homes for Karachi. Islamabad’s failure to redress the MQM’s complaints is the real reason for the threat of MQM to walk out although it is camouflaged in economic demands to bring in support from the Sindhis as well. To make matters worse for the MQM, its leaders have been trading insults with the PML (N) leadership. Consequently, the political situation looks very uncertain and the PPP looks extremely weak. And enter General Kayani centre stage?

The Assassination and the Islamic Fundamentalist Fervour

There is another development that could make the Army even more indispensible to the situation in today’s Pakistan - the assassination of Salman Taseer the Punjab Governor and a close ally and friend of President Zardari, by one of his own guards for his opposition to Blasphemy Laws. It is not the first time that the religious right has resorted to punish those opposed to its creed. While Pakistan’s liberal elite may mourn Taseer’s death a wide section of the religious right has actually approved the killing.

The comments that were visible on Twitter and Facebook supporting the assassin were a chilling indicator of the direction Pakistan had taken in recent years. Killing for religion is frightening enough but the reaction that has been visible is even more frightening. The diktat by the Jamaate Ahle Sunnat Pakistan that no Muslim should attend Taseer’s funeral sends a chill down every liberal spine.

The JASP is the largest body of the Barelvi group and considerate moderate in comparison to the Deobandhi-Wahhabi-Salafi Sunnis. Gen Zia’s dream has become Pakistan’s nightmare. The message to the liberal elite is - shut up and put up. The comment by the well known Pakistani commentator Cyril Almeida that, “Conservative forces are not just on a roll in Pakistan, they’re pretty dominant. And liberal forces are not just on the back foot, but, really, they are extinguished,” sums up the despondency and the gravity.

This is not the first time that a prominent Pakistani leader has been assassinated by suspected Islamic hardliners or attempts have been made. Benazir was killed by three years ago at the second attempt. They almost succeeded in killing Gen Musharraf in 2003 when he turned his back to the Taliban and some religious extremists in response to American demands. Then there were several attacks on the symbols of Pak power since September 11, 2001 including the Army and obviously the rot had set in but all this was swept away in the larger interest of preserving the peace and fighting the larger American war.

Teacher’s Pets

In the midst of all this one would continue to have doubts about Pakistani leadership’s commitment to fight terror. It is believed that, the well-known senior Pakistani terrorist Qari Saifullah Akhtar from the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami with links to both the ISI and Al Qaeda was released from custody in early in December 2010. He had been taken into custody in August 2010 for trying to recruit five Americans for Al Qaeda when they had visited Pakistan in November 2009.

Qari Akhtar has a colourful jihadi history. Qari and the HUJI have been very close to the Taliban and Al Qaeda; he was involved along with some jihadi Army officers in an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Gen Abdul Waheed Kakkar in 1995 and over throw the government in 1995. Released in 1996, Akhtar fled to Afghanistan and then plotted the assassination of General Musharraf in 2003; he fled again to the UAE, deported in 2004 and released from custody again in 2007; was suspected to have been involved in the abortive attempt on Benazir in October 2007; detained in February 2008 and released in June 2008; and he was one of the main conspirators in the attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September 2008.

The ease with which Akhtar has been able to change residence only adds to suspicions that when the trail gets too hot the Pakistani establishment pulls in its assets for the trail to go cold and then release them when it is considered safe. This happens ever so often to Lashkar e Tayyaba leader Hafiz Saeed and the Jaish e Mohammed leader Maulana Masood Azhar.

Indian reactions

Some of us worry that this could have an adverse reaction in India. There is an overreaction in some sections about intolerance in India. We must learn to trust the Indian Muslim instead of assuming he will be influenced by events and thought processes or ideologies in Pakistan. In so doing we challenge his intelligence and doubt his loyalties. In Pakistan they demanded the funeral of Taseer be boycotted because he was a liberal, in India the Indian Muslim leaders refused to allow the killers of Mumbai 26/11 be buried on Indian soil because they were terrorists. That is the difference between them and us.

True there is a fringe element in India as in most democratic societies but it does not endanger the state in the manner it has in Pakistan where it is no longer a fringe element but may well have become mainstream. In fact, extreme belief has been state sponsored in Pakistan; not so in India. The trick is to marginalise the extreme fringe but not to frighten the mainstream. Reaction here tends to lose touch with Indian realities and creates more discord. Careless off the cuff remarks are more responsible for this sort of thing and do not make for responsible commentary. (ANI)

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are those of Mr. Vikram Sood.(ANI)

will not be displayed