Pakistan Unraveling: Options for Obama Administration
By Najam Sethi, Middle East Progress, March 12, 2009
As President Obama rolls up his sleeves to unfurl a new American policy agenda for Afghanistan, in which a stable, democratic and pro-America Pakistan is required to play a critical role, the news from Islamabad is not good. Anti-Americanism is rife, even in the Pakistan army which is expected to bear the brunt of Washington’s demands to “do more” in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban terror. Most Pakistanis think the war on terror is America’s war, not theirs, and that if America were simply to pack its bags and quit Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda would melt away and peace would automatically return to the troubled areas. This view is reinforced by Pakistan’s purportedly "free" media in which the leading television anchors and popular analysts are products of the Zia ul Haq years of the 1980s when religious ideology and nationalism were fused by the militarized state to create a mindset and identity that continues to clutch at the Islamic Middle East for sustenance rather than secular South Asia in which Pakistan was born. Worse yet, Pakistan’s post-Musharraf experiment with democracy is becoming unstuck barely one year after the last general elections. The only serious option for the United States is to continue to support democratic efforts in Pakistan, strengthen its economy, train its troops in counter-insurgency strategies and most of all, help empower the liberal mainstream.
The two mainstream parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, and the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are getting ready to slug it out on the streets, a sure recipe for political instability. If heavy-handed state repression or provocation by any of the many armed non-state actors and jihadi groups allied to the Taliban results in blood in the streets, the military may be tempted to step in again to “save the country” from its squabbling politicians as has happened three times in the past.
Mr. Sharif’s PML-N lost out to the PPP in the 2008 elections due to a sympathy vote after Ms. Bhutto’s assassination. Unable to digest the prospect of sitting out in the cold for another four years (Musharraf had exiled him earlier for nine years), Mr. Sharif desperately wants the restoration of the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in the fair expectation that the latter would hold all Musharraf acts illegal – including the reprieve from corruption granted to Mr. Zardari and several PPP leaders – and thereby compel a mid-term election later this year or next. Mr. Sharif is capitalizing on his rising nation-wide popularity in the wake of the plunging fortunes of the ruling PPP and its coalition partners, the results of a run of bad political decisions by Mr. Zardari, including retaining the chairmanship of the PPP while serving as president of Pakistan and having a party loyalist acting as prime minister. Mr. Zardari’s refusal to reinstate Mr. Chaudhry has led Mr. Sharif to join hands with a simmering country-wide lawyers’ movement in support of Mr. Chaudhry. The joint opposition has launched a “Long March” on Islamabad from all over the country, starting March 12 and reaching its destination for an interminable “sit-in” outside parliament in Islamabad on March 16.
Mr. Zardari’s pre-emptive strike to ensure the failure of the “Long March” has actually made matters worse. On February 25, the Supreme Court headed by a Zardari loyalist banned Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, from holding public office, thereby depriving him of the chief minister-ship in the government of Punjab. If Sharif Jr. hadn’t been chucked out, he would have definitely put the weight of his Punjab government behind the “Long March” and created problems for Mr. Zardari. Outraged, the Sharifs have declared war on Islamabad. They have launched rallies to rouse Pakistanis to defy the government and make “revolution.” In a desperate move, they are exhorting the organs of the state, in particular the police forces, not to obey the orders of the government. Mr. Zardari’s home minister, Rehman Malik, says this is sedition and has threatened action. Temperatures have risen so much that pundits are predicting bloody clashes between protestors and the police in the coming few days. There are also rumblings of disquiet in the military.rmy chief General Ashfaq Kayani met with the prime minister on March 11 to express his concerns. Most people are convinced that the army will intervene forcefully if there is blood on the street.
Mr. Zardari has offered a constitutional package to Mr. Sharif in which his grievances are addressed satisfactorily – lifting of the bans on holding office or becoming prime minister again, and even a restoration of Mr. Chaudhry as chief justice – without endangering the longevity of the Zardari regime. But Mr. Sharif refuses to bend. He wants Mr. Chaudhry restored as chief justice before making any deal with the Zardari government.
Understandably, Washington is worried about the internal situation in Pakistan. It had hoped that Mr. Zardari would create a political consensus in the country in support of the war on terror and get the military’s backing for it. Instead, he has only succeeded in alienating large sections of public opinion against himself and indirectly, against America, which is seen to support his regime.
One consequence of this has been an opportunistic “peace deal” with the Taliban in Swat bordering the volatile tribal areas in the north where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are rampant. Pakistani liberals and the international community see this as an abject surrender of state sovereignty to the terrorists. It is bound to give them the space in which to regroup, arm and strengthen themselves. As if on cue, Mullah Umar, the leader of the Taliban who is hiding in no-man’s land along the border with Afghanistan, has called on all Taliban groups, Pakistani and Afghan, to unite and get ready to face the American "surge" in Afghanistan in a spring offensive instead of expending energy fighting the Pakistan army in the tribal areas.
The Pakistan military is pricked by media criticism of the war on terror. As a result, it worries about being caught between a rock and a hard place, which is what would happen if it were compelled to seize power in order to stop a breakdown of law and order following large-scale civil disturbances during and after the “Long March.” On the one hand it would have to face the combined opposition of civil society – Mr. Sharif has warned that if the army intervenes to seize power directly instead of easing Mr. Zardari out and making way for him, he will join hands with Mr. Zardari to oppose military rule. On the other hand, it would have to deal directly with Washington, which would ask that it “do more,” a highly unpopular move. It is already licking its wounds –more than 1000 soldiers have been killed by the Taliban so far –in the tribal areas and has no desire to "own" the war against terror.
There are some analysts in America who, despairing of the lack of quick democratic dividends from Pakistan’s warring democrats, argue that in the event of a military takeover, Washington should get ready to do business with the new regime. This is misplaced thinking. General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, which was quite stable and popular until its last months in office, was compelled to play a double game—supporting the war on terror in exchange for U.S. economic and military aid while providing safe havens to the Taliban in the tribal areas and not committing the full might of the military to the war against terror, partly because of lack of motivation in its rank and file and partly because of lack of training against guerilla warfare. Any new military regime would be doubly indisposed to do America’s bidding in the face of strong public hostility. The Musharraf regime retained a modicum of political support across the country until its dying days. But any new military regime would be politically isolated at home and run the risk of battling both the terrorists and civil society and pro-democracy activists at the same time. Nor, in the presence of an aggressive anti-American and pro-democracy free media, would it be able to persuade Pakistanis of the righteousness of its cause. Finally, if urban jihadi organizations were to join hands with the pro-democracy movement, there would be mayhem and anarchy on such a scale that even the army would not be able to control it.
Under the circumstances, American, British and other western diplomats have been scurrying between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif in the hope of knocking some sense into their heads and staving off any clash. Indeed, they are ready to act as "guarantors" and go-betweens for the two parties in the event of a workable deal. But so great is the level of distrust and acrimony within the political system that such efforts have all but been abandoned.
In the best case scenario, the Zardari government will be able to thwart and negate the “Long March” by pre-emptive arrests of political leaders, splitting tactics and select repression without too many cracked skulls and bones. This could be followed by a PPP government in the Punjab in alliance with General Musharraf’s old party, the PML-Q, a breakaway rump of Mr. Sharif’s PML-N. Mr. Zardari would then muddle along until another “Long March” wave threatened him. Meanwhile, he would struggle to work with Washington and deliver its agenda on the unpopular war on terror. In the worst-case scenario, the army would step in and find itself in political quicksand, a disastrous situation from Washington’s point of view.
Pakistan is unraveling. The only recipe is more democracy, not less, so that civilian support for, and ownership of, the war on terror can be manufactured and strengthened. Western efforts must be focused on strengthening the economy (there is no substitute for jobs, well-being and upward mobility in ensuring a political stake in the system rather than Long Marches and terrorism) and retraining and re-equipping the Pakistani military to cope with insurgency. Above all, greater intervention is needed in discreetly but firmly knocking political heads together in Pakistan. The last thing the United States should consider is a wink and a nod to another army general to seize power. The war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban will eventually be won in the hearts and minds of the people.
For this, empowerment of secular and liberal elements in the mainstream media is crucial. The present nature of the vernacular Urdu media, both print and electronic, is that although the owners are all stake-holders in the national economy, and have assets in the United Kingdom and the United States, they are pandering to the lowest common denominator (hatred of the United States, sympathy for the Taliban, emphasis on religiosity, hatred of India) for the Punjabi urban middle classes in pursuit of eyeball “ratings” for ad revenues purposes. The media barons of Pakistan must be persuaded to allow rational debate in their papers and on their channels and discouraged from pandering to the religious right, glorifying Al Qaeda and the Taliban and spreading hatred of India. The majority of Pakistanis are still interested in the objective truth, but this may be a short-lived phenomenon as they are steadily being poisoned by a diatribe of irrationality. In the final analysis, the battle for hearts and minds has to be won in the Pakistani media rather than in the tribal badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.