Pakistan is facing its greatest political crisis since the resignation of Pervez Musharraf as president last year.
The last month has seen a string of sobering events: Authorities reached two peace deals with pro-Taliban groups, one in the Swat valley last month and another in neighbouring Bajaur this week; militants attempted to capture or kill the touring Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore; and the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled that the leaders of Pakistan’s largest opposition party, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Punjab Chief Minister brother, Shahbaz, were ineligible to stand for election. Yet as the country spirals towards dysfunction, its powerful allies have largely sat on the sidelines.
The attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers last week was unprecedented, even by the standards of a country gripped by a violent Taliban insurgency. Cricket is a secular religion in Pakistan, a fact that has been noted by many including cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who argued before the attack that foreign teams should continue to visit the troubled South Asian nation because no one would dare harm cricketers.
Despite the high-profile nature of the attack, no one has claimed responsibility for it. This has added grist to the rumour mill. Much of the local media have speculated on the involvement of the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, India’s counterpart to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency. RAW has previously been suspected in bombings and support for separatist movements in Pakistan such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army. However, according to journalist Saleem Shahzad, a veteran observer of religious militancy in Pakistan, RAW does not have the capacity to undertake such operations.
Militant religious groups are widely suspected, particularly given the striking similarity between the attacks in Lahore and Mumbai. Shahzad believes disgruntled militants left out of the Swat peace deal were behind the attack.
Under the deal, the Taliban were to lay down their guns in exchange for the release of their comrades who are languishing in Pakistani prisons. This did not, however, include militants from Punjab, a region to the south of Swat and the nation’s most populous. The aim of kidnapping the cricketers was to force the release of Punjabi militants.
Uncertainty over culpability for the Lahore attack may linger, but there is no doubting the impact it will have on the civilian government’s capacity to provide stability.
Yet Pakistan’s politicians appear more determined to fight turf wars than provide a united front against extremism — or, indeed, an economy in freefall.
"It is time for revolution", extolled opposition leader Nawaz Sharif during a rally yesterday, a statement that is sure to reek of irony to long-time Pakistan observers. Sharif is no radical, grassroots activist. Both he and his brother rose to prominence as businessmen patronised by General Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan’s pro-US dictator during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and architect of the country’s transformation from majority-Muslim nation to Islamic state with more conservative religious seminaries per capita than any other country in the world.
Even today the Sharif brothers — whose surname means "wise" in Urdu — court the support of religious parties which, in material and rhetorical terms, support the Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas.
Only now, after his removal by the Supreme Court, has Nawaz Sharif unequivocally backed the reinstatement of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. He now promises to partake in the "long march" protest beginning in Lahore on 12 March and ending outside the national parliamentary quarter in Islamabad on 16 March, the second anniversary of the day lawyers commenced organised protests against Chaudry’s dismissal by Musharraf.
Rehman Malik, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Interior Affairs, said Sharif’s call for rebellion constitutes sedition — punishable under the Pakistan Constitution with life imprisonment. He has threatened to take stern action if the upcoming march leads to "death… or anyone’s property is damaged".
It was a particularly ominous threat given the Pakistan state’s long history of imprisoning opposition political leaders.
Nor does it help that the benches of Pakistan’s highest court are still lined with judges appointed by Musharraf after Chief Justice Chaudhry dared to place his regime under the glare of an independent judiciary.
Current President Asif Ali Zardari inherited sweeping powers from Musharraf, although he claims to be seeking to revoke them. The President has the power to sack the National Assembly and appoint the chiefs of the armed forces. That makes many feel as though the Supreme Court is very much under Zardari’s thumb, just as it was under Musharraf’s thumb before. Last week’s decision, which effectively sidelines Zardari’s greatest political foe, appears to confirm this.
Parliament is meant to be discussing how to revoke the powers given to the President by Musharraf, but progress is occurring at a snail’s pace and the current political drama means Zardari will retain his powers for the foreseeable future.
Zardari’s party, the secular Pakistan People’s Party, is the most popular political party in the country. But the current political malaise has been dynamite for religious groups that advocate a conciliatory approach to the Taliban insurgency and are traditional allies of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party.
Among this turmoil, rumours of a return to military rule have begun to surface. Unthinkable after the last military ruler was forced to resign just last year, Islamabad is rife with rumours that General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the armed forces, has given Zardari until 16 March "to clean up the mess".
Kayani is himself fresh from justifying Pakistan’s performance against the Taliban to United States officials. The warning to Zardari is said to have come directly from the United States, whose support Pakistan can ill afford to lose. According to National Public Radio in the US, Kayani is "key" to US plans in the region. That may well be a sentiment shared by the US Government.
At present little is being aired publicly, although Pervez Musharraf re-emerged on Pakistan’s television screens yesterday stating he would consider a return to politics if asked, although he had not been approached by anyone.
Whether Kayani is as bashful as his former mentor remains to be seen. But if there is a coup this year, expect Washington’s blessing.
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